Tuesday, August 20, 2019

GM Diary: The Primagos Chronicles


Undoubtedly one of the best campaigns I've ever played, the Primagos Chronicles also set the stage for one of the most extreme (called Cybermage - there will be another post for that one). It was a campaign that, for me, really made the Age of Knowledge come alive in its own right, rather than simply just exist as a middle ground between the two other ages.

Setup

I must admit: despite all my rulebook writing where several settings are laid out in detail I often opt for a completely different setting when creating a new campaign. Perhaps this is because the prewritten settings are already done in my head; I have a mental image of them already in my head. Thus choosing another setting lets me - as well as the players - explore something new.

In this campaign I went all the way on that thread as the players take the roles as mages ("magos") within the declining nation of Damasa. Various wizard clans are bickering over power and though new technology is somewhat of a hallmark of the Age of Knowledge it was quite absent in the characters' home city of Hermis, situated at the root of the Othos Mountains. 

I invented 12 wizard clans/houses that wrestled for control over the nation and placed the characters as belonging to Ikalos - a craft-oriented clan with fairly good reputation and relations with just about everyone - to give them a fresh start. As for where the campaign was going I had only a very vague idea: one of house Ikalos' master craftsmen (or "artificer") would go missing (because another mage was trying to involve him in national politics) and the characters were to be tasked to find him. Where it went from there was a blank sheet.

Now the player group at my disposal was a bit smaller than usual: just three players. It was also three players that knew each other well, enjoyed playing with each other and, very importantly,  could handle internal conflicts both in and off game in a amiable manner. 

From a GM perspective this is really my ideal situation: to be able to let go of group dynamics and let the story write itself by expanding on the subjects the players choose to engage in. Of course, the choice of characters lay the very foundation for this journey - so here comes an introduction. The only requirement I placed on them was that they should have the ambition to reach the primagos rank - which meant they would gain access to more powerful spells and allies but be forced to involve themselves in Damasan politics.

Mehred

A complicated character, somewhat of a mix of Sybill Trelawney (divination teacher from Harry Potter) and Indiana Jones, Mehred is the son of a merchant family and is the character most skilled in the social arts. As it would appear he follows the rules of the nation, but when no one is looking he is more than happy to break them when he has cause to do so. While a bit distrustful he generally helps others throughout the campaign - though on most occasions he manages to do so and still turn a profit.

Julian

With a skillset combining biomancy (healing arts) and necromancy, Julian is somewhat at odds with himself right from the start. His family are mages too and they generally have good relations. It is a different matter altogether with Julian's (former) master - whom he betrayed for a chance at gaining power. This is a political side of him that is dormant for much of the campaign - but which comes back as very important towards the latter stages.

Vespian

A pure blood wizard aristocrat, Vespian comes out as a mixture of Lucius Malfoy (from Harry Potter) and Captain America - if such a combination is possible... Staunchly loyal to his motherland he has volunteered as a fighter against rebels in Damasa' colonies (something magos are generally except from) and believes that the magos' dominance of Damasa must continue - though the different houses should put their quarrels aside and unite against external enemies.

Development

The campaign started as planned with an expedition for the characters to find the missing artificer, after spending a few sessions establishing everyday life and a few of the characters' local contacts. As a central theme in the campaign was built around the fact that Damasa had been the enemy in several other campaigns and scenarios I wanted to continue to challenge the players in this perspective by offering opportunities to join with various factions whose ultimate ambitions would not be known to them from the start (thus possibly turning themselves into suitable antagonists in other campaigns). 

The artificer the characters were looking for had withdrawn to an old hideout deep into the former Damasan colony of Javasia - now a full-fledged rebel nation. I had already planned for the following campaign developments:
  • The characters involving themselves in house Ikalos politics (as it was a high ranked Ikalos mage who had given them the task). House Ikalos had a strong incentive to unite the various houses as they had business with most of them - though it possessed little power to achieve this. Ultimately the characters didn't show interest enough to submit themselves to the machinations of the plot giver and this path was not to be.
  • The characters involving themselves in the colonial conflicts. This could mean siding with the rebels to form a faction of their own or to pick the side of one of the clans trying to reclaim Damasa's influence in the colonies. There were three clans trying to do so; house Dakyr through diplomatic means, clan Molo through arms supported by magic and house Aedanu through numerical superiority. The characters would sort of get around to this later in the campaign, but as a group showed limited interest to making this their chief concern.
  • The characters involving themselves with the mysterious mage which had caused the artificer to go into hiding to begin with. This mysterious mage, named Nepthys, had connections to a reoccuring protagonist (yes, you can have those too) called Morion whose goal was to unite Damasa to lay the foundation for the Union in the Age of Information. This would be the path the characters choose.
  • The characters would encounter a powerful necromancer who in turn served the lich-lords of the fallen Zhengdi Empire (situated in the jungles bordering the rebel nation they were visiting). The lich-lords were looking to gain knowledge about the world beyond their domains so would have been interested in making some sort of deal with the characters. Alas, the characters did what most people probably would do when encountering necromancers and undead and left the place with some haste. 
As stated above the characters choose to engage with the mysterious mage Nepthys. This allowed me to elaborate on a new story. 

Long story short, Morion and Nepthys are two characters at the heart of Centuria lore. They are rebelling against the dragon Halomyr's plans to shape the society of Umarald into a powerful puppet state which she can control. Their main issue with Halomyr's plans being that she doesn't care much for individuals or methods - she's only concerned with the "greater good", a sort of statistical judgement of success. While certainly not evil this can at the very least make her callous in her dealings with mortals. Morion and Nepthys resent this and tries to improve the world through more humanitarian methods. 

With this in the back of my head I set out to design a plot. Now, the whole setting was already evolving around the fact that Damasa was getting a bit behind its main competitor (the nation of Gothia) and there was need for reform - but what if there was a reason this reform was not happening, beyond the bickering of the wizard houses?

In the Age of Steel Damasa is led by a nigh-invincible mage-emperor who was assassinated prior to the Age of Knowledge. Well, powerful mages tend to be hard killing - so having the emperor seek to return to life (to save his beloved country) seemed a nice touch. Now, any foe skilled enough to actually kill him would probably have anticipated this - so what if the country's state was a consequence of a status quo the most ancient and powerful mages of the nation did not dare to change?

Thus I invented the story of a demonic pact sealed by those who wished to get rid of the emperor. The plan had been to grant the emperor's soul to a demon - forever preventing his return - but this was not to be as one of the emperor's closest friends, a mage named Zalazar, assassinated him instead, part to save his soul and part because he knew a Damasa led by the emperor would stagnate even more than one without. Now, this created a conundrum for the original plotters - the pact with the demon had been made and it required the soul of a powerful mage. They tried to change the deal, to which the demon agreed, but such things rarely end well... thus one of the plotters agree to become the demon's mortal host and in the return the demon would be tasked with keeping the emperor from returning for all eternity. Only now the plotters would become preoccupied with keeping the demonhost at bay, seeking to limit its influence while still allowing it to do what the pact required of it. And this was the power struggle that kept Damasa from moving forward - none of the mighty wizards dared risk a change in the status quo that could give the demon the upper hand.

The plan of Morion and Nepthys was to slay the demon and have Damasa move forward again, ideally taking steps to becoming more egalitarian. While they did possess firepower enough to challenge the demon itself they needed a smoke screen to prevent other mages from meddling and also they needed someone to reform the country - as they didn't themselves like to be like Halomyr by deciding what was best for other people.

The story continues

Nepthys would task the characters with trying to find allies among all the wizard houses to start a revolution. As she didn't want fighting in the streets going directly from a magicracy to a democracy seemed a bad idea. Instead the goal was to level the playing field among mages and prevent only a few ancient wizards from deciding the fate of the country and people they had little to no interaction with. 

This suited the characters' goals and personalities rather well, but they had some issues with Nepthys keeping them in the dark regarding the context of the revolution. There was a reason for this; the demon had the power to hunt down people who knew about the emperor or its own existence and thus, keeping the characters unaware of this Nepthys was in reality protecting them.

Eventually they of course found out - through the appearance of the emperor's assassin and former friend Zalazar who sort of high-jacked part of the plot (being an extremely impulsive character as a means to remain unpredictable to his enemies I decided for him to unravel the entire plot as a result of one of the characters asking a particular question). From there it was an epic story with the characters seeking to achieve their political goals while at the same time avoiding the servants of the demon and those who wished to keep the status quo. 

In the end they were victorious - though time would wash away much of the sense of victory. More on that when I write about "Cybermage"!


Thursday, August 8, 2019

GM Diary: Project Synapsis


Unless I'm misstaken, Project Synapsis was the first campaign I ran in the Age of Information. At this point the rule book was still under revision and I remember quite a lot of the gear lists grew rather substantially during this campaign...

Setup

Set in the gnomish city of Noravon with some 75 million inhabitants (mostly humans) the initial plot was for the characters to be recruited by remnants of the Order of the Falcon (an order of assassins and spies from previous Centuria ages, still active in the city) and given high-profile clandestine missions to accomplish. The whole setup was fairly inspired by the Shadowrun setting - though unlike Shadowrun there's less place for sword wielding samurai and magic is not so overtly used.

This is usually how I begin a campaign: with a concept idea with some thought through realism. I choose a mission approach because its easier, from a story perspective, to handle players not being able to join a particular session.

The next big obstacle to tackle is group cohesion. From my experience the best roleplaying requires a balance between internal conflicts and cooperation. Obviously you don't want a group that will tear itself apart from internal strife (at least not for campaigns...) - but equally bad for story telling is a group where everyone just stick to their role and never interfere with the others. But yeah; its usually the conflicts that become a problem...
In this campaign there was an additional dimension to this issue. As the characters were recruited by the Order of the Falcon it seemed likely that a) the Falcons did a thorough job in assessing the people they planned to recruit b) the Falcons would pretty much kill off any team that did a poor job. Thus I felt it very important to get the group cohesion as right as possible directly from start.
The obvious path to achieving this would have been to let the players in on the story and have them design their team together - but I didn't want that. I find there is too much roleplaying to be had and experienced in that first encounter between players to take it away. Also the uncertainty about what business they are getting involved in adds for better playing.
The route I took was to run a single player mission with each of the players right after they finished creating their character. Not only did it give me good intel on each character but also gave each player a chance to test out their skills and really find out what their character was good at. It took more time obviously, but was worth it all the way.

The crew

The characters that emerged during this campaign deserve some space, so I'm going to give it to them. This was one of the few campaigns were I really experienced all characters growing; picking up skills and challenging some of their own viewpoints.

Deco

Darnell Lambert, shifter name Deco, would end up leader of the new team. A mind for details (not to say pedantic) and slightly paranoid, Deco always emphasized the planning phase of any mission. Preferring stealth he avoided violence when he could but was lethal when required. He used quite a lot of drugs - both as performance enhancers and for recreation after a mission. During the campaign he would develop from proficient spy to nigh-undetectable, brooding assassin. 

Loric

Loric Winkler was a talented but somewhat laid-back hacker, who also tampered with hardware. His role as the group's techwiz was quite given right from the start, but an interest in heavy weaponry and robotics would provide plenty of flavor on multiple occasions. Its easy to get stuck in improving on what you're already good at with a character like Loric, but he successfully developed new skill sets during the campaign and put them to good use (suppressive fire wasn't one of them).

November Sun

Renna Moneaux, shifter name November Sun, was a middle class wage-slave working in the underworld mostly as a rebellion towards the rule-governed corporate world that otherwise occupied her life. Unlike the other members of the group violence terrified her and she wasn't very good in social situations either. What she lacked in these skills however, she more than compensated for with her brilliant knowledge. Her speciality was cybertech and medicine, though she was generally good with any hardware and electronics. It was a very brave choice to play a character like Renna in a campaign of this type, but she provided so much depth to the group. She was a constant reminder to how most normal people reacted to violence of any kind and I believe strongly influenced the group to stick to low-profile solutions whenever they could. 

Ratman

Jack "Ratman" Reacher was a low-ranking security officer employed by Mashnar Security Corporation - one of the major such corporations in the city. He moonlighted as muscle for the simple reason that he needed the dough and his in-depth knowledge of security setups in general allowed him to do so quite well. When he couldn't bluff, talk or walk through an obstacle he was also more than proficient in a number of firearms. Naturally he became the group's fighter, but his corporate background coupled with a very vivid family description (wive and three kids) gave him a depth many characters (to my experience particularly fighters) lack. He would form sort of the backbone of the group and had a very interesting development when reaching the point where the money they earned more than covered the reason he was working a double in the first place.

Dai Kau

Huang Sun, shifter alias Dai Kau, was to most a respectable businessman - a facilitator working for a mid-sized economics corporation. However, part thrill and part gambling debts had pushed him into an underground career as well. A social player he knew how to deal with people and to weigh costs to profits. Despite this he had a rather low profile within the group - preferring to play out his social skills when needed rather than live and breathe by them. As an avarai (different etnicity to the other characters who are all goths) Dai Kau brings some interesting connections to the group. Through a personal side quest involving his family he is probably the only member of the group to actively choose to leave a "normal" life behind and submerge himself totally in the shifter life. 

Playing the game

As a Game Master, the most effort I put into this campaign wasn't into the main story itself. The main story was pretty straight forward; a corporation had stumbled across an enormous dormant dragon within a mountain far to the north. They sought to implant technology into its brain in order to extract information from it. One of the leaders of the Order of the Falcon had uncovered some intel on this operation and was eager to learn more, but without alerting her peers. Hence the characters were employed to collect data but without being given any real insight into what was going on.

So this story could run its course in the background without much work. Instead what I probably spend the most time on was keeping tabs on each characters' private economy and, for each in-game month, writing a little text about things that was going on in a character's private life and accompanying this by news bulletins about things that might or might not relate to the overall story. This turned the whole campaign not so much into an action adventure but rather a sort of documentary on the lives the characters were living. From their eating and sleeping habits, landlord problems and family arguments (some more serious than others). The depth this created behind each decision was incredible and is probably the reason why I still, more than 4½ years later, still love to incorporate or reference these characters in other campaigns we play. 

I believe I've written lengthy enough on this subject now. As for the story the characters would eventually shut down the whole dragon-brain surgery operation - but not before that same dragon had been awoken. This would form the plotline for the sequel: Will of the Beast.

Quotes and comments

These quotes and comments have been collected from the players who took part in the campaign.

"...One of the most difficult jobs we've made but we pulled it off perfectly. At least until we reach the vault; Ratman forgets to reach for his scramble grenade and Sun informs everyone that the guard turrets activates if they detect elevated anxiety."

"Deco's stated philosophy of not killing people - followed by someone getting killed by Deco."

"It was fun that everyone was so engaged in their characters and regularly posted texts where you got an insight into that character's life. Many were quite secretive, but the texts kept the door open for us to watch."

"We are to kidnap a gnome protected by heavy security. How do we solve it? We exploit his passion for avatar games and pretend to offer him a place in the big league. He practically comes running to us after having ditched his own life guards. We capture him without leaving a single trace."

"My best memories are the relationships between the characters. How Deco tried to control the group by ordering Ratman to take off his hat. I remember Deco hiring Sun to surgically implant a drop stabilizer in his body, done in her storehouse. I remember Loric's reoccuring scornful comments to Ratman, Sun's and Loric's tech race and Dai Kau's mystical relationships." 

"Deco is the character I have felt the most for. Thanks to a great depth in private as well as professional life he became alive. Drugs, the monobike, the flat, the secret locker, the contacts and the feeling of endless city around him and how he was but a drop in the ocean was epic from a roleplaying perspective."

"Remember that half [of one] mission was for the group to prevent Loric from blowing things up. The other half Loric used to invent the computer virus 'Sesam' which could later be used to open all the gates in the area so we could merge with the crowd and just walk out with everyone else heading home from work!"
"Ratman is the most vivid character I've played. That he had a family which he loved and wanted to give a better future gave him huge depth and complexity. It also made it challenging to play the character as he lived a double life. Also it was impossible to put everything he earned to improve the character. I remember when we got a big paycheck and everyone else planned what cool stuff you should buy. I bit my lip and placed almost every credit in the children's education savings account."

"I remember scenes where we drove detours to shake pursuers, long planning meetings in the secret hideout and cleanout of autos we've used."

"I remember Ratman's promotion. Fun in a personal way. With an upcoming promotion at the security corporation Mashnar, Ratman's life is being reviewed by a very thorough gnome. Afraid that his double life would be exposed, Ratman calls in his colleagues which plant evidence that the gnome is stealing corporate secrets from Mashnar. The poor devil was gone very quickly." 

The GM Diary

Its been quiet here on the blog for quite some time now, for various reasons. The spring got caught up in a prolonged attempt to get the Age of Information rule book printed. Succeeded just in time to have the book at this year's LinCon, so after that event there has been a need for some vacation (read: only weekly roleplaying without additional massive projects).

Well, though summer is not quite over yet there are some projects in the pipe. But these are extension modules and will take some time to complete, so I don't want to leave this space entirely untouched for that period of time. Thus I thought it a good idea to revisit some old adventures and campaigns that I've played as Game Master with the Centuria rules.

The idea is to give some insight behind the scenes; hopefully giving a good picture of why some of the design ideas behind Centuria are as they are (it is adapted mostly for Game Masters after all). But I'm also hoping to collect some stories from the people who were a part of these campaigns to share and enjoy.

You will find a full list of adventures I plan to write about at this page, though I will not write about them in the order that they appear.

If you have yourself acted as Game Master using the Centuria setting I would be delighted to hear and share your story as well!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Generator update

Centuria is launching a new character generator, available here. While the functionality stays the same, under the hood its brand new and hopefully perceived as more user friendly. Not all pages have been migrated, so the old generator is still up and running (you can find it through a link available in the new generator) if you prefer to still use it.


The might still be a few bugs present (just as in the old generator) so if you run into any please use the contact page and forward the information so it can be fixed!

The updated version contains:
  • Brand new frontend technology (ASP.NET MVC)
  • Several bugfixes
  • Adding the "Dagger's Watch" - a collection that will present characters created by other users, which can be viewed and downloaded
  • Updated family generation; parents of other races (more specifically dwarves, elves and gnomes) can now have a wider age span and the number of siblings are more in line with race descriptions.
  • Added a few new careers
  • Improved character creation steps with better descriptions and clearer separation
  • Improved debugging

Friday, January 4, 2019

Developer Diary: The Northern Dwarves

Off-topic note: It's been a while now since last post - lots of stuff going on (mostly on the positive side). But here's finally the finishing piece for the Developer Diary for the Age of Steel.

Last out in this series of Age of Steel nations and civilizations are the Northern Dwarves - represented by the kingdom of Thzud.

The kingdom of Thzud exists in the setting for two (three?) primary reasons: firstly, the already established Southern Dwarves are stated as colonies - thus a colonizing nation must exist. Secondly the human kindom of Cenowar is awfully isolated on the north-eastern coast so I needed some point of interest for it to interact with (apart from the monsters and mysteries of the Dark Forest). The hinted third reason is really a derivate from the first one; as the Southern Dwarves are colonies they lack some of the ancient luster that often surround dwarves in fantasy. Since that's an aspect I want available in the game, Thzud will fill that role.

It is a rather straight forward idea - and also quite fitting - to imagine the northern dwarves as more extreme than their southern cousins. Their city is older (and thus grander and more populous), their traditions even more integrated into the fabric of society and their legacy puts them on the very top of the who-interprets-the-scriptures-correctly pecking order (though they are too distant to their southern cousins to enforce this viewpoint).

To preserve the mystery of this kingdom, Thzud is chosen as an isolationist state. Granted that the most(?) logical explanation to having a whole city underground is that its people is seeking protection from the outside world this seems very plausible. However, to give the state an "in" into the game a limited trading contact with Cenowar is established. This doesn't seem unreasonable as Cenowar is also a very traditional state (at least by human standards) which has quite a few common viewpoints with the dwarves. The only other relation possible would be that with the elves to the west. Quite frankly I've left this one open with an abandoned dwarven city to separate the two. Was it a war? Or did the two races never meet as goblins overtook the dwarven outpost? Something else? Its just the sort of non-critical (from a game design point of view) relation I want to leave to a Game Master to develop to fit the preferred narrative.