Changes in my plans for the next year or two mean I’ve been thinking about future campaigns I could run – possibly even in English! – and this leads me, inevitably, to think about some of the campaigns I’ve thought of running or wanted to run in the past but been unable to, either because a) I don’t feel up to it or b) I haven’t had a chance or c) players aren’t interested. So here’s a short list of some ideas I’ve had, and the reasons I haven’t/won’t/can’t do them, and what I might need to do to run such campaigns.
I’ve long wanted to run a sandbox game set in a Space Opera universe, where the PCs have no purpose but to wander aimlessly from planet to planet causing trouble. i.e. Traveller, but I have never had any success trying to run a campaign in this type of universe. I really like the Traveller universe but I hate the game, so I’d probably switch to a different system, e.g. d20 Modern or even my own adjustment of d20. I’m really interested in the ‘Verse, the universe of the Firefly TV series, and would love to set a campaign in that universe. It has all the benefits of space opera, but incorporates just the right grittiness to make the play style more interesting. I think it comes with the challenges of Nihilism I’ve previously expressed concern about in “punky” and hi-tech settings, but the poverty of the edges of the universe means that you can easily restrict access to more advanced tech; and in the more “civilized” planets the Alliance is clearly an anti-smoking, gun control New York city council gone hyperspatial, so there’d be no problem controlling access to the most advanced tech. There’s also a huge amount of adventuring opportunities in the ‘Verse, and even humanoid monsters.
The big problem I have with space adventures is that I really like my campaigns to include some magic, and there’s very little of that in most Space Opera. I could do Star Wars, but I always find that setting strangely limiting. Technology can be its own magic, of course, but for some reason it never seems to work out that way. Unless…
The Culture of Iain M. Banks’s novels would be a very interesting setting for a campaign. The universe is huge and easily-explored, the technology is so advanced as to easily be treated as magic, and the biotech of the Culture universe gives lots of opportunities for the creation of strange character classes. Furthermore, Iain M. Banks has already provided a range of outstanding settings to gallivant around in, some of them quite remarkable. The classic adventure hook would be to set the PCs up as agents of Contact, and to set them a task they can go about achieving any way they want. Unfortunately, adventuring in the Universe of the Culture has significant GMing hurdles, not the least of them being that PCs basically can’t die, so you need to present adventures in which failure is not built around death, but mission failure. Also, the range of available technology is infinite – the PCs can simply ask a GCU to accompany them on a mission, and if it agrees well, that’s that, the PCs have a world-destroying space ship of infinite intelligence at their disposal. Plus of course, they will always have a knife-drone to protect them, which makes them immune to pretty much any attacks. This would create the challenge of adventuring without combat. Weird. This is essentially a type of superhero adventuring, and although the universe and settings appeal, I think it’s too challenging for me to GM.
This campaign idea sets the players up as a group of completely ordinary young people in a standard 1960s city. Each PC is completely and utterly 0 level, but has one special skill connected with a hobby or their work. The campaign starts with them having lunch together in a setting where they could, potentially, gain access to privileged information. What follows is a series of increasingly bizarre warnings that something is about to happen – either over a period of days or minutes, depending on the scenario I envisage. The PCs have the chance to take the initiative and get the right, or wrong, idea about what is happening. After a fixed amount of time the apocalypse hits, and they’re either in a safe location or not. They then have to survive the post-apocalyptic circumstance they find themselves in. I envisage the apocalypse as a classic nuclear attack, though the aftermath might be heavily influenced by horror, with mutants, monsters and/or slow leakage of magic. The original plot I envisaged had the PCs lunching together in the canteen of a government department, with one of the PCs a telephone operator for that department. Seeing activity nearby, they can investigate over the afternoon using their contacts, and identify an imminent attack. They then have a chance to infiltrate the government’s dedicated shelter, which they aren’t authorized to enter. Once in it (if they’re successful) they have to explain their presence, and/or kill everyone. While trying to live this lie, some kind of horror scenario unfolds.
An alternative plot would have the PCs having to untangle multiple strands of possible warnings – nuclear war, invasion, or disease – before the actual apocalypse event hits. I even envisaged the PCs being able to learn magic in the new world, as previously-buried secrets come to light in the new world. From 0 level nobodies to wizards and post-apocalyptic gang lords, they could even build their own kingdom in the new era…
I really like the world of Nausicaa, Princess of the Valley of the Winds, and think it would make an interesting setting for a game. My limited internet searches tell me there is not an existing TRPG for this world, but it’s a lush and interesting setting, that could easily furnish many adventurers. Taking the role of someone like Yupa, the PCs could wander the earth uncovering old secrets and getting into trouble. It includes the opportunity for tomb robbing, dungeon adventures, piracy, forging kingdoms, everything that a normal campaign should have – plus massive insects. Also an excellent setting for a sandbox campaign, as the main kingdoms are outlined but there are huge unexplored spaces to delve into. The original movie and manga contains just enough hints at magic to make at least low-level magic acceptable, and certainly suggests feats of the impossible (massive corvettes, little girls taking out teams of armoured soldiers, the mehve, etc.). I don’t think there would be any problems playing in this world if the players had all read the manga and/or seen the anime.
The world of Mononoke would be an excellent setting as well.
I haven’t bought this product, which was the focus of much controversy when it was released, and I’m not very into old school D&D, but the setting and some of the ideas seem really interesting, and the evil summoning angle certainly seems to suit my style of campaigning. Also, the flavour of the text and the narrative style seems interesting. I really like the idea of a world where dubious “ancients” of some kind designed different colours of human as experimental material, mingled with the swords and sorcery style of the gaming. I’d like to try this someday.
Neil Gaiman’s two best books, Neverwhere and Stardust, both present excellent settings for gaming, and because I read them consecutively I’ve always thought of them being somehow linked. Neverwhere is set in a magical alternate London, broken into regions with characteristics based on the names of the tube stations, full of magic and sinister powers, in which all significant business arrangements seem to be based on the exchange of favours. Stardust is set in a faerie land connected to the ordinary world of Victorian England by a town called Wall. I ran a brief adventure once in which the world of Neverwhere was linked to the world of Stardust through the Roman camp at the edge of London, and it really seemed like an excellent adventure setting. The physical laws of Neverwhere are very well established but completely vague, and the general principles of the world clearly enough arranged that one can construct a self-consistent adventuring setting that is extremely dangerous. Stardust is the same. There is scope for almost any kind of adventure in these two worlds, from high fantasy to the grittiest of film noir-style detective agencies. It would be well worth exploring, but players would have to have read the books… unless I used the trick from both novels, of displacing a group of ordinary earth-folk into the world, and having them learn it the hard way…
Compromise and Conceit: Greek Independence Campaign
I have long considered running a Compromise and Conceit campaign in Greece during its war of independence. This war has the unfortunate distinction of having attracted the attention of the British Romantic poets, which means that it could, in my alternate universe, form the crucible in which the Romantic College of Magic was created – or it could be the destruction of the whole artistic and cultural movement they represented. What were they up to in that war? Did they have some secret purpose? And, could the PCs be involved in the war in such a way that they could both choose sides in the war (between the Ottomans or the Greeks) and in whatever intrigues the established colleges of magic in Europe were up to. A brutal battlefield in which the latest Infernal technologies are being tested, a secret and sinister conflict between the magical colleges of Europe, and ultimately the full display of the magical powers of the Persians… this could be a very exciting and dangerous setting for infernal adventuring, as well as giving me the opportunity to flesh out the history of the Colleges, the powers of the Persians, and the realpolitik of Infernal Europe. Plus, the PCs get to meet Lord Byron!
I have always liked the Warhammer 40k/Spelljammer idea of magic and orcs in space, but I always thought Spelljammer was a bit naff, and the Warhammer 40k series seems very specific. I’ve wondered if there is some way of using these kinds of ideas (shall we call it Fantasy Space Opera?) to unite my desire for sandbox Space Opera, magic, and some inclinations to planar adventure into some kind of cohesive whole. The easiest way to do this is simply to run an extra-planar adventure in d20/Pathfinder. But alternatively maybe we could move into a different setting, a fantastic space opera where the cities and planets are more like Gondor in the Lord of the Rings than the Old World of Warhammer (ie. splendid and heroic, not grotty and cynical), and the highest powers of the universe are gods and god-like beasts.
The problem with this type of campaign is that I just can’t quite seem to find a way to merge it all together in a way that feels right. Spelljammer seems too much a mix of the bizarre, the stupid, and the Larry Elmore-esque in one weird pastiche, while Warhammer 40k feels too grim and dark. Planar adventures also sometimes seem too weird, and also not space-like enough. So until I can find a way to get this sense of place happening properly, I don’t think that I can achieve this goal.
A final note
I don’t know what campaigns I will be running next – maybe I want to continue warhammer a little longer, or use the system for something similar, or maybe I will try a few short adventures with Japanese systems, it really depends on how my future role-playing groups pan out. Some of the ideas I have presented here are too challenging to run (for me, at least) and some are too specific, I think, for a group of players to approve of. I’m also not generally fond of – or capable of succeeding at – adventuring in other peoples’ settings (at least, not literary settings). So probably any attempts at these ideas would fail. But nothing tried, nothing gained, so…