Old Campaigns


Another year has passed, and a chance to review the games I played and the great things I did in them, as well as to preview what I hope to play (and GM) in the year to come. This year was a relatively quiet one in gaming, actually, possibly because business travel for me interrupted a lot of gaming opportunities and possibly also because, by the standards of the two previous years, gaming has been a little bit low key in 2017. Besides a few minor side sessions, 2017 has been about playing in one major Shadowrun campaign, and running the new Mutant system. But playing, particularly, didn’t reach the heights of the previous two years. Here’s a brief review.

Undriel: The Gaelic high fantasy that floundered

I started the year playing a series of adventures in a world called Undriel, a classic fantasy setting with a Gaelic twist, which was run using a home-brew system our GM developed based on World of Darkness. I was officially very resistant to playing in World of Darkness rules, which I have had bad experiences with and really don’t like, and flat-out barred using the standard magic rules of e.g. Vampire: The Masquerade, which I think is a terrible system. The magic system we came up with was quite flexible, however, and I liked my character quite a lot: Xenobia the unwilling necromancer, a young noblewoman who was accidentally infected with necromantic powers by a dark ritual gone wrong. I enjoyed playing her as a creepy girl aiming to do good, but the system didn’t work as I expected (WoD, natch!) and for some reason this campaign floundered after about session 5 or 6, only 2 of which I joined for reasons of travel. I think in truth that all the players carefully avoided further participation in this because we all just did not like the system, and the Gaelic twist on the fantasy world meant we had to know too much detailed mythological background to figure out what was going on. So this campaign died in the arse somewhere around April, quite stillborn but sadly not especially mourned.

Shadowrun: Continuing the New Horizon campaign with magic

After Undriel failed a different GM stepped up, to run a short and low-demand Shadowrun campaign. This was a continuation of our excellent and wonderful New Horizon campaign, a classic cyberpunk setting run in Cyberpunk (which is an awful system). The New Horizon campaign was amazing, and featured probably my all time favourite PC, The Druid (aka Drew), a rifle-toting teenage girl with psychopathic tendencies, and we were all eager to run a continuation. The New Horizon campaign ended with our characters waking a dragon and bringing on the Awakening that heralds the opening of the sixth world, and the shift from Cyberpunk to Shadowrun. So our new, 2017 campaign was set 50 years or so later, in the ruins of New Horizon, in a world of magic and assault rifles and metahumans. This Shadowrun campaign has been a lot of fun, with nine sessions completed in the second half of 2017 and a lot of tense and fun adventures featuring a fairly tight-knit and well-functioning group. My character, Jayden, is a bit boring compared to Drew but he is a highly effective melee combatant and I have really enjoyed playing a character who is competent and completely comfortable in his world, without any of the psychological baggage that made Drew and Xenobia a little bit thorny for the other PCs to be around. Shadowrun New Horizon hasn’t had as many memorable moments as the original New Horizon Campaign, even though it’s run by the same GM, but this is partly by design: After a couple of high-tension high-stakes campaigns, he consulted with us and we all agreed we wanted something more low key and traditional, just a bunch of guys and girls running in the shadows and getting by as best they can. It’s been a good chance for us to explore Shadowrun pretty much as it’s written, in a Hong Kong-type setting with our GM’s flair for exceptional settings and tense scenarios but without the demands of an over-arching story. We’ve all been enjoying it and we expect it to continue into 2018.

Mutant Year Zero: A startling new system and a fun world

For the second half of the year I have been GMing a short campaign using the Mutant: Year Zero system by The Free League. As I stated in my review of the game, I have been really stunned to find this system which is light, highly playable and extremely flexible, and has made GMing fresh again for me. It’s a simple system that really finely balances risk and reward, and seems to have been really popular with my players. On balance over the past couple of years I think the game I ran that my players enjoyed the most was Flood, a post-apocalyptic waterworld setting run in Cyberpunk where the low-tech setting made the terrible system almost bearable, and I really really wish I had known about Mutant when I ran that campaign, because I think this system would have made it even better. Instead I’m running a campaign set in post-apocalyptic London, with the PCs doing nothing more really than exploring the area around their Ark and slowly uncovering things about the ancient world and the history of the Ark. I expect this to only run for one or two more sessions, but the players all seem to have been really enjoying it and they all really love the simplicity and elegance of the system. I can’t say that the Mutant campaign has been a masterpiece of GMing on my part but it has flowed smoothly and the system has inspired me enough that I (and I think my players too) really feel like I’m there, crouched around the trashcan fire after the fall of the world, when I break out those dice.

GMing in 2018: Coriolis and a real high fantasy campaign

Our other regular GM is moving away from Japan in mid-2018 and I am hoping to be able to take over the core GM role for our group for the foreseeable future, which I am hoping will give me the opportunity to run a long, detailed campaign of the type I haven’t run for years. After Mutant finishes I intend to stick with a similar system by the same company, Coriolis, and run a short campaign in that setting until I take receipt of the Forbidden Lands RPG, which is currently in production stage. That is Free League’s attempt to merge the system used in Mutant: Year Zero with a high fantasy setting, and everything I have seen in the reports on the kickstarter suggests it is going to be an awesome high fantasy system that – for the first time in years – makes me want to GM high fantasy.  I am hoping to take that and make it our group’s primary campaign setting for at least the next year and hopefully longer, running the kind of sprawling, 1st level-to-lordship fantasy campaign that historically has only really been possible in crappy systems like D&D. My whole group have been wanting to run a high fantasy campaign but we just can’t get into any of the current systems, and Forbidden Lands offers the real possibility of a setting and a system that finally work. So having played Coriolis to adapt to a richer version of the Mutant: Year Zero system, we will switch over to a full fantasy setting and get to grips with the kind of fantasy role-playing we’ve all been yearning for for years.

That’s my 2018 Big Plan!

Playing in 2018: Muskets and Magic

I have joined a second group which is running a GURPS-based muskets and magic setting. I haven’t started playing with them yet but I’m hoping it will prove to be an excellent addition to my gaming in the new year. I haven’t played GURPS before, it looks complex and fiddly but viable, but the setting will be very similar to the Compromise and Conceit setting I was GMing when I first started this blog. I’m hoping that will provide not just a refreshing setting and a chance to play in a world I only ever GMd in the past, but also a chance to meet new players, new GMing styles, and new ideas. Hopefully this will mean that 2018 brings with it a whole bunch of fresh new game worlds and experiences.

Real life in 2018: Less business, more exercise

I have been making adjustments to my work life in 2017, including scoring some big successes, and I am hoping that in 2018 I will do less business travel, spend more time in my home, and have more time for both gaming and blogging. This blog has taken some hits in 2017, with posting dropping down to fortnightly or even monthly at times, and I have been less enthusiastic about it at times than I would like. Next year will be 10 years since I started the blog, which has held together over that whole time, and I’m hoping that in 2018 I will be able to pick up the posting a bit and get back to where it was at a few years ago. I have also discovered a much better kickboxing gym in 2017, where I am slowly recovering my love of kickboxing, and I’m hoping that in 2018 I will be exercising more and regaining the fitness that drained away slowly over the past few years. So overall in 2018 I’m hoping for less exotic destinations in the real world, and more exotic destinations in my imaginary life – which is way more interesting, anyway, than traveling for work.

I hope you, my reader(s), who have patiently stuck by this blog over these past few years, will get to see more gaming reports and more interesting worlds in 2018, posted more regularly, and hopefully follow my players as they grow from first level adventurers to mighty heroes, in a fantasy world worth adventuring in. And I hope you too get to enjoy a rich and varied imaginary world in 2018, with large dice pools and mighty deeds. Bring it on!

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In comments to my statistical proof that Game of Thrones is misogynist, Jamie tells me that I am viewing the world through the lens of “privilege,” and thus unable to properly understand the seriousness of certain issues. There is of course a grain of truth to this idea, that living in a certain privileged environment can make one blind to the full nuances of life as someone else, and to the extent that the word “privilege” or phrases like “blinded by privilege” can be used to describe this situation, I think they are useful rhetorical devices. But scan any feminist blog today – Feministing, or Pandagon, or Shakesville, for example – and you’ll see lots of examples of arguments being shut down and opposing opinions invalidated through the invocation of “privilege.” For example, at the “feminism 101” page on Shakesville, itself a loathsomely sexist blog (though the authors can’t see it) we get lots of invocation of privilege in quite negative and almost mystical terms. Consider “On Privilege Breeding Insecurity” (emphasis in the original):

Insight isn’t the only thing that undiluted privilege doesn’t freely give its members; it also robs them of an internal, dignified security that isn’t predicated on treating rights as a zero-sum game. Every layer of privilege serves as proxy for the self-assurance hard-won by struggling to be proud despite one’s marginalization. Privilege tells its members they need not reflect, or justify, or earn, or question. They needn’t even bother themselves with the business of being good, because unexamined privilege assures them they are good, by virtue of their privilege.

Not only is this a remorselessly negative view of modern men, but it clearly contains the germ of a rhetorical strategy of ignoring other people’s point of view and setting up levels of “privilege” that you can choose to ignore. Of course, it’s written by an American, which means it’s written by one of the most privileged people on earth, whose entire way of life depends on the huge economic inequality between her country and the rest of the world. Yet … I’m sure she’d object to being told that her “hard-won” self-assurance was actually a windfall due to an accident of her birth. It’s kind of like being a man, really, isn’t it? And see here’s the great thing about the argument from “privilege”: Shakesville’s author can claim that she understands the situation of people in the developing world – maybe she’ll even claim that her own underprivileged position gives her useful insights – and that her opinions about what people in the developing world should do and think are valid; but the child labourer from India can just tell her that she’s talking from a privileged position and doesn’t know anything, really. And what can she say back? It’s a perfect argument – if you want to stifle debate. Not so useful if you think that the free exchange of ideas might help everyone to progress to a world without inequality.

In my opinion, then, this concept of “privilege” as deployed in the feminist blogosphere is deeply counter-productive: it has limited analytical power; it reduces structural discrimination to simple personal politics; and it is founded on the gender essentialism that pervades radical feminism, which is itself a tactic aimed at establishing a new, privileged form of rhetoric.

The limited analytic power of “privilege” rhetoric

The very last time I involved myself in a political struggle was a student occupation a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I was not a student at the time – I had completed my Masters of Public Health and was working full time as a researcher in a health centre for extremely marginalized members of the community (who themselves could show astoundingly regressive racist and sexist beliefs). I just turned up with a few mates to help out with the occupation. More fool me. Near the end of my day of “helping,” as my stomach was sinking at the site of what a shambolic and useless demonstration it was turning into, I found myself standing in a ring of students, who were being given instructions by one of the demonstration’s organizers. At this time I was in my mid twenties, kickboxing maybe 2-3 times a week, and hadn’t yet discovered fashion. So there I was in a flannelette shirt and skintight black jeans, hair shaved, tanned from bike riding and generally in fairly good physical condition. The organizer went around the ring of students asking each in turn to go to their university and organize as many students as possible to come to the occupation[1]. Then she came to me, took one look at me and said “I want you go to your technical college and see if you can get us any help.” That’s right, she thought simply by looking at my clothing that I was not a university student.

This woman was so “blinded” by her own “privilege” that she couldn’t comprehend that someone from a working class or lumpen proletarian background could even be at university. This is a remarkably naive attitude for a person in Australia in the 1990s, when lots of people from that background were easily able to get into university if they studied hard. But it showed what a bubble she lived in. So whose privilege was working against whose here, and which one trumps which in the woe is me stakes? Me the professional man still not yet out of my working class cultural heritage, or her the wealthy woman? Obviously I was no longer in the class of my origins – as a researcher I had moved up to middle class – but the attitude she was showing to me is exactly the attitude that now, as a professional adult, she will be showing to little 18 year old versions of me that she meets, working class men and women whose futures are extremely vulnerable to small flexings of the muscles of the privileged upper classes. So in amongst this complex mess of privilege – of age and wealth vs. masculinity – which one should we decide holds the whip hand? And in making that decision, have we actually added anything to our understanding of the best methods for undoing the inequality that plagues our societies?

In my estimation, we’re much better off ignoring people’s origins, and talking about the structural factors that determine inequality. As someone from a working class family who found out what university was at the age of 16, moved to his university with precisely $300 to his name ($250 for student fees!) and has never received a cent from either of his parents since he turned 16, but who watches his friends have their houses bought for them by rich parents, I feel that the inequality in access to capital is a much, much more serious factor in determining life futures than, say, the fact that one of those friends had never had a friend who paid their own fees before he met me.  How does discussion of the role of people’s privilege in personal interactions change anything for people from my background? Reducing political disagreements to nasty personal judgments about your interlocutor’s emotional attitude to you won’t help working class women get access to childcare, but it will distract everyone from the structural factors that govern inequality.

The reduction of structural discrimination to personal politics

This concept of “privilege” also enables “anti-racists” and feminists to be self-congratulatory even as they’re saying or doing enormously racist and sexist things – because they themselves aren’t from a background of “privilege” so everything they do must obviously be in solidarity with the world’s victims. Right? Try telling yourself that next time you drink a cup of coffee during a debate about inequality, and think about where that coffee came from. The best example of this that I can think of is Pandagon, which is a nest of accusations and co-accusations of privilege. I was banned from Pandagon for challenging one of the team’s racist assumptions about Japanese Otaku culture. The very next comment after my banning was a crude joke by that same team member about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. I guess, if you’re a black man from the wrong side of the tracks, your lack of “privilege” means you can make cruel jokes about a whole race of people that your country once nuked. Pandagon also used to host a commenter called Gilmar, who was a soldier who spent several years in Iraq. She was very fond of throwing out accusations of privilege, but the sparks really would fly if you pointed out the hypocrisy of a member of an occupying army complaining about their own oppression. Now, it may be that she thinks the war in Iraq is justified, but there are about 2 million Iraqi refugees (and a million dead) who might like to disagree; by her own lights, rather than engaging with her in a debate about the relative merits of liberal interventionism, they can just say “you’re blinded by privilege!” and there goes the argument. Unless she wants to claim that a female soldier in the US army from a poor background has less privilege than one of the civilian victims of that army. And maybe she could – some of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were gang leaders, no doubt, or colonels in a sexist society, etc. So the argument cycles back to a debate about who is blinder to whose circumstances, while the war grinds on and grinds over the little people.

I think identity politics has its place in political discourse and can form an important narrative tool, as well as a rallying point in struggles for equality. For example, if your inequality exists purely because of some identifiable aspect of who you are – your skin colour or sexuality – then solutions to that problem must necessarily distinguish between people on the basis of that identity. But that doesn’t mean identity politics is always and everywhere right or useful, and the big problem of modern identity politics American-style is that it reduces every political discussion to a debate about individuals’ characteristics and problems and conflicts, rather than to a discussion of the social and structural determinants of inequality. I don’t care how blind person X is to the problems of person Y, if person X doesn’t engage in or facilitate structural barriers to person Y living their life as they want. Sure, it might mean that person X doesn’t understand person Y’s predicament, but who cares, so long as person Y’s predicament gets fixed?

There are issues of course where individuals react against perceived reverse discrimination, where this blindness may have political consequences (e.g. backlashes against positive discrimination). But responding to that by accusations of “privilege” blinding the objector isn’t going to work: not only will they object to their own compassion being questioned, but it’s likely that they have their own experience of discrimination and barriers, and this will lead to the unedifying prospect of mud being slung between the people at the bottom. This is why conservative campaigns against things like positive discrimination and welfare tend to be aimed at the Tory working class – because they are going to be least favourable to others getting a leg up, through their own experience of discrimination. Telling them they don’t get it because their experience is just not so bad both impugns their compassion, undermines any class solidarity one might be aiming to try and achieve, and just generally sets them on edge. Better than saying “you don’t get it because you’re more privileged than me” is to explain your program to them. And if you can’t convince them of the merits of your program, then maybe your program isn’t good for them, in which case regardless of your relative degrees of privilege, they will oppose it.

The most obvious example of this is the inequality between nations. It’s in the best interests of the majority of the developing world to see major changes in the way the world order works. If these changes were implemented fully, the readers of Pandagon would have to pay considerably more for many of the resources they take for granted. Strangely enough, they seem to be more focused on domestic issues. One could claim that this is because they are blind to the suffering of the developing world, but more likely it’s because they don’t particularly want to overturn a world order that works just fine for them… but by ranting on about the privilege of white upper class cisgenders they can escape the extra bit of self-reflection required to at least have the decency to feel guilty about posting blog comments on a phone made at FoxConn.

Gender essentialism and the language of “privilege”

A more sinister aspect of this concept of “privilege” that I find annoying is its assumption of some heirarchy of troubles, and its lack of interest in the overlapping problems of class, culture, gender and sexual identity. Thus we find ourselves trapped in fine-grained debate about who is more privileged – a straight-acting white gay male or a working class white woman vs. a wealthy lesbian professional vs. a rich, white, heterosexual female student. But underlying a lot of this debate in the feminist blogosphere is the idea that gender trumps the lot and sexism lies at the base of all the other forms of discrimination. There’s a strong streak of gender essentialism in this notion that we can boil down all inequalities and social conflicts to a root cause of discrimination against women, and whether it’s expressed in the astringent language of radical feminism or the more eloquent and allegorical just-so stories of ecofeminism, we still end up with this unknowable and unchangeable root-causes theory driving our understanding of who is in a worse situation than who. Alternatively, unable to comprehend the complexities of intersectoral discrimination, these bloggers find themselves constantly treading on each other’s toes: in this debate you can’t disagree with my opinion because you aren’t disabled; in this debate the key dimension of privilege is gender, so how much really would race or class affect that fundamental dimension? Of course, women are always and everywhere discriminated against, so they can always defend themselves against claims of privilege.

We see this at its most unedifying in two issues: whether to include transgender women in safe spaces; and how to respond politically to lesbian B&D. The latter has received some awful criticism from radical feminists, which makes it clear how uninterested they are in including certain forms of sexual identity in their big tent. It’s okay to be asexual, apparently, but not to be a masochist lest you reproduce patriarchal relations in your lesbian bedroom. And transgenders retain the privileged perspective of men, because women have a special, innate experience that no one else can understand. This kind of logic is poisonous for any shared understanding of the human condition, and destructive of attempts to find shared ground.

Conclusion

Talking about “privilege” as a reason why people disagree with you or don’t understand you doesn’t get you anywhere. At best, it reduces argument to a debate about lifestyles and identities – the Americanization of political debate. At worst, it alienates your interlocutor and blinds both you and them to the very real common ground you might be able to find in the struggle to make the world a better place. Political disempowerment and inequality is as much about structural causes and social constructions that we have no choice but to participate in as it is about individual reactions to “the other,” and reducing all disagreements and social conflicts to the latter leaves us trapped in an essentialist bind – we’re all caught up in our own identities, which are at war with each other. In fact those socio-cultural and economic causes can be changed, if we work together and try to understand each other. But the language of “privilege” assumes that we can’t – that a rich boy can’t conceive of how terrible it can be to be raped, or that a poor white woman will never understand that fat black lesbian’s struggle, no matter how much she tries. It’s prescriptive in that it fixes our response to discrimination in our identity, and restrictive in that it doesn’t give credit to the ability of our common human condition to overwhelm our differences, even where those differences are manufactured and enforced by potentially monolithic structural power relations. Bashing identities together atomizes and disrupts the struggle; seeking common ground and solutions that don’t rely on breaking down other people’s identities is much more likely to work. So ditch the language of “privilege” – if someone disagrees with you, it’s probably because they’ve thought about your position and they think you’re wrong, not because they can’t see things your way because they aren’t a transgender Vampire:The Masquerade player.

fn1: Yeah, this was an “organizer” of this demonstration, didn’t even have contact details for other university unions when they decided to get physical with their own university’s property. How would that work out if you did it in latin America in the 80s?

This is a report of a FATAL campaign I GM’d many years ago in Australia. This was back in my student days, and my group consisted largely of the student activists I ended up hanging around in those days: a young labor party activist called Danny (something of a mentor for me); a radical feminist Jewish left-wing Zionist who flirted constantly with me and nearly broke my heart and who for the purpose of this review I’ll call Miss R[1]; a no hoper stoned-out kid who could have been brilliant but had some kind of serious problem of motivation, who I’ll call Mr. Obscure; and the overly energetic arty kid (at some Sydney art school whose name I now forget) called Ted who suggested we try out “this wickedly complex game, hey man it’ll be challenging for you Mr. Rolemaster! Pass me a spliff, Mr. Obscure!”

So we ended up playing FATAL, an enormously complex, pretentious and yet simultaneously juvenile game whose name is an acronym for “From Another Time, Another Land.” The game system itself certainly is – I took it on in response to Ted’s challenge, because I’d been GMing Rolemaster (“Mr. Rolemaster”) for some years and in a drunken, stoned (well, everyone except me and Miss R, who “didn’t want to lose control” so wasn’t even drunk, but still managed to bat her eyes at me all night long) conversation my players revealed to me they were bored of watching me juggle critical hit charts like a pro and wanted to see if my “semi-autistic” (again, Miss R[2]) brain could handle a higher challenge. So, like the reckless young risk-taker I was, I took them up on the challenge, and (without even knowing the term) within a month I was running a sandbox campaign with the most complex system anyone has ever designed.

FATAL has, looking back, no good points except its juvenility, which is about the only refreshment you get from the unrelenting and exhausting task of managing the rules. Combat leaves Rolemaster in the dust for complexity, handling magic is hideously complex, and any skill check requires thumbing through hundreds of pages of tables to find the chart you need (and they are poorly laid out, too). But for all its complexity and the continual challenge of trying to see the wood when the trees are so thick and dangerous, it has many rewarding points. For about 3 months Ted played his character with significant brain damage after a left brain hemisphere injury whose results took 10 minutes to resolve in the middle of a crucial combat, but in fact this brain injury was the transformational moment in the campaign. Not only did all the players see that FATAL’s combat system is genuinely dangerous and unique, but Ted chose to play his brain damage as a kind of divine inspiration, and from that inspiration our campaign shifted from a mere series of consecutive dungeon crawls to a campaign at another level of intellectual and spiritual achievement.  His character started having visions, Miss R’s character started treating him as a prophet (as a consequence of some servile character traits she’d rolled up during the two session long character creation process) and with my help the party went from disconnected dungeon crawling in a standard fantasy world to a kind of world salvation crusade.

Ted’s characters dreams were, spontaneously I think[3], visions of bloodlust, murder and rape, and he was able to use his artistic sensibilities to really get the feeling of a character being driven to some deeper truth through tortured visions. He (the player) would even draw sketches of violent import for us and we slowly built up a portfolio. We used the various tables on rape and murder contained in the rules (which I subsequently heard, and I think in general for good reason, were heavily criticised in the role-playing world) to inform his tales, and a picture slowly emerged of a world under threat from an insidious, world-destroying power that was slowly poisoning the earth and unleashing hellions to attack the women of the world. The party would move from village to village, Miss R’s character guiding Ted’s wizard while they told their tale of despair and rapine and gathered evidence of the enemy. From Ted’s images I slowly gathered together a tale of a brooding dark lord who used evil, woman-hating magic to draw forth dark beasts, which increasingly assailed the characters during their travels.

Slowly the characters unravelled the truth of the dark lord’s behaviour, through a combination of traditional capture/torture techniques on his bad guys, and through investigating the dark lord’s activities and servants in various towns and villages. The FATAL rules, which are so hard to work in combat, were a huge help here, enabling me to generate all sorts of challenging social and interrogative interactions. Slowly, the campaign turned under Ted and Miss R’s guidance (and my response) into a kind of eco-feminist quest, to undo the slow darkening of the world and hunt down and destroy “the WR” (The World-Rapist) before he could achieve his goal of unleashing a new corruption that would turn the entire world and all its descendants to his cause. In the game this was envisaged as a kind of ultimate rape, a roll of 100+ on one of FATAL’s many enormously juvenile and offenseive sex tables. And in the end the PCs faced off with the dark lord, destroyed his servants and wrecked his plans, though Ted lost his (second – the first one’s brain damage took him before the final confrontation and he played his new, useless character very recklessly) character, and Miss R was forced to cut down Mr. Obscure’s PC after a particularly evil spell turned him on the party. In the end the campaign finished with Miss R the only one standing, and this created a lot of bad blood which means that none of us talk anymore[4].

So there you have it: a FATAL sandbox campaign that turned into an ecofeminist crusade under the inspiration of a crazed artist and his sometime radical feminist lover, under the guidance of yours truly. FATAL is a hard game to run that I would never recommend to anyone – I certainly won’t ever be doing it again, and in general I think the juvenile sex obsession of its authors lets it down, but with the right players it can be taken to great heights. So I suppose the lesson of this campaign was that system is no impediment to good gaming, and that every system has some point (even if it’s tables of sexual encounters and organ size) that can, with the right dice roll, drive a story to new heights of achievement.

But in general it’s better if you don’t have to wade through 8 or 10 tables spread over 58 pages in order to get there.

fn1: she has an important job in a government body now so I can’t really identify her as a gamer

fn2: I’m a little drunk, but I don’t want this to come across as some kind of cathartic rant; I’m well over Miss R.

fn3: Fucking artists

fn4: I never got to sleep with Miss R but Ted did[3], however he was a bit of a jealous sort[3] and his (apparently legendary) boudoir skills weren’t sufficient to stop Miss R flirting with me[5], and Ted started assuming there was a thing going on[3], which led to a lot of bad blood, so that when Miss R was the only left standing of course he assumed I’d killed him off out of spite. In truth, I’d made a promise to myself early on in this campaign never to fudge any dice rolls, which was a first for me and after this experience not something I ever was so foolish as to repeat.

fn5: What can I say? I’m just that good[6]

fn6: but not quite good enough to compete with Ted[3]

The campaign I lovingly refer to as The Apocalypse Campaign was a campaign I ran in the early 2000s in Sydney, Australia with a combined group of inexperienced friends and experienced players. It started off, I recall, using a tarot-card based system whose name I forget and which was, unsurprisingly, terrible. I then moved rapidly to a non-tarot system of my own devising that was intended to be very simple and was, correspondingly, probably quite useless. This system was characterized by now character classes and skill-based magic (i.e. no spells – players just say what they want to do and I set a difficulty).

I think of this campaign as a kind of story seed with sandbox, in that I placed a few key story elements in the first adventure with no clear plan as to how they would unfold, an initial plan for one or two unrelated adventures, and a plan to build a strong story based on whatever happened next. The story seeds were quite powerful and gave me a backdrop within which I could easily control the PCs actions whenever I felt the campaign needed a kick, but the setting was quite powerful and the PCs good at exploring and controlling it themselves.

The Setting: Post-apocalyptic fantastic Europe

The setting was Europe after some kind of combined arcane cataclysm and apocalypse, in which the seas had risen (possibly due to global warming, though it wasn’t clear), advanced civilisations had collapsed and magic and monsters had entered the world. The cause of the collapse was unknown, with all knowledge of that time mysteriously lost, and the events were generally blamed on “science” so the world had retreated into a kind of neo-luddite mediaeval system, ruled by feudal kings under the wise guidance of the Catholic Church. This is the campaign for which I carefully constructed maps of a flooded Europe using just paint and a photocopier. I don’t think I have those maps anymore but the rich detail they provided was very useful for keeping my players engaged in what turned out to be a complex and interesting post-apocalyptic scenario.

In fact, the true history of the apocalypse was that the Catholic church, seeing their grip on the world slipping away with the increasing influx of technology and scientific knowledge, unleashed the catastrophe of the apocalypse deliberately into the world, breaking barriers between the material plane and some other planes to allow demons, monsters and magic in. The ritual they invoked led to the destruction of the modern order but preserved their own temporal power, enabling them to assert themselves in the aftermath as both the ruling powers and the first custodians of magic. In the new era, they hunted down those who were not officially licensed to use magic, destroyed heretics, and carefully shepherded all knowledge of “before” to hide their complicity in the world’s downfall. They held all of Europe in subjection under an undying pope, whose soul was reincarnated in a new boy child every 90 or so years. They also sought out and destroyed pre-collapse technology, and controlled a pan-European army of religious inquisitors (the Falcons) whose job was making sure everything went smoothly. All more advanced magical items that would replace the role of technology in the new era were also controlled by the church or its secular representatives. The model society was similar to that in the flooded post-apocalyptic Europe of the White Bird of Kinship novels, with demons.

The Plot Hooks

The basic plot hook for the adventure was simple: the characters were in a pub waiting for a ship from a fragment of England to Brittany, when Falcon soldiers descended on the pub and attempted to destroy it and abduct a child. The PCs rescue the child and the old man protecting it, and flee, but are chased and in a brief battle kill the soldiers but lose the old man. His last dying words are a request for them to save the child, which they agree to do, and they begin hiking overland to a different port to take ship to Brittany. The child, of course, is the next pope, and their act of charity has put them in direct conflict with the church. They then go to Brittany, meeting a Hungarian Fire Lancer along the way (and stealing his gene-coded fire lance), then in flight from the Church they travel to somewhere in Germany. On the way they are stranded on a haunted Ocean Thermal Energy Collection platform, where the haunting ghost shies away from them in terror at the mere sight of their baby. Much of the rest of the adventure involved them slowly discovering that yes, the child harboured an intensely evil being and yes, the being was the next Pope. From there they began to discover details of the history of the collapse, the Church’s power and how evil the Church really was.

Settings and Adventures

I managed to put some pretty memorable settings and scenarios into this campaign, some of them based on rediscovered tech and some of them based on the new magical world and its links to hell. Some examples:

  • The Ocean Thermal Energy Collector, which the characters wash up onto during a storm. While seeking shelter they stumble on the undead guards of its last occupants, killing them, but they are unable to defeat the chief ghost in the OTEC tower; however, they are able to steal his treasure because he shies away in terror from the infinite evil of the baby they are looking after. This gave them the first hint that they needed to investigate the baby magically for clues as to why the church was chasing it
  • Hungarian Fire Lancers, which I made up on the spot but proved very useful. A Hungarian fire lance is a pre-collapse plasma cannon of awesome power, gene-coded to a particular family so essentially an heir loom. The lance’s owners are allowed to keep these artifacts in exchange for service to the church, and they are legendarily powerful. The PCs, meeting a lancer early on in the campaign, were way too crafty for me, and turned an NPC meeting I had intended as a bit of flavour into a chance to empower themselves mightily. One of the PCs was a technomage, and the PCs thought that he might be able to hack a genecode. So while the fire lancer was distracted during a battle with some pirates, this PC slipped down below and recoded the fire lance to his/her own DNA. The fire lancer died when he next touch his own lance, and the PCs stole it.
  • The Time Bomb: Passing through an area of Southern Germany in their skyship, the PCs stumbled on a region deep in the mountains where birds hung in the air, slowly collecting moss; and on the ground below were the scenes of a battle between tanks and soldiers, all frozen in the midst of their actions. So dirt was frozen in the middle of an explosion, soldiers caught in mid-air halfway through a leap, a tank in the middle of being destroyed. The PCs investigated and found they couldn’t move anything or interfere with anything except a single bomb. The technomage disarmed this bomb, and suddenly all the previously-frozen soldiers and animals collapsed, dead, to the ground; the tank completed exploding and the dirt flew to its natural trajectory. The PCs had discovered a bomb that freezes time in a small area, causing all living things in the area to die instantly, and freezing everything in the state it was in when set off. Very useful for, say, killing a very powerful pope… but with only one use. They took it, and a grav tank.
  • Conversations with Orc Lords: The PCs did a bit of trading and passenger-carrying with their skyship, and in one memorable journey carried an Orc lord who turned out to be a very civilized and sophisticated chap, with a taste in fine wines and art. He hailed from a kingdom in Southern France that was entirely Orcish, and described their society of ritual duels, slave-owning, and continual internecine conflict. I re-envisaged Orcs as sophisticated, intelligent and yet still brutal and cruel, denied access to any form of trade with their neighbours and so only able to obtain magic items and technology by conquest. The PCs, of course, formed an alliance and immediately traded tech with this chap, and the Orcs – in all their brutality and sophistication – became a prominent feature of this campaign.
  • The Dragon Battle: I do dragon battles very rarely in my campaigns, preferring to keep dragons for near the end, when things are really out of control, and usually making them so awesome and inspiring that they only ever need be met once. So once the PCs had set up a kingdom for themselves in the pyrenees, discovered the truth about the Catholic church and were starting to coordinate resistance to and war against the pope, the pope sent a dragon to destroy them. This dragon, longer than London bridge and louder than a steam train, descended on their tower in a storm of its own making and killed one of the PCs instantly in a surprise attack. It then set about destroying their skyship, wasting their castle and slaughtering their followers in quick order, and they had to use all their wits to defeat it. It was only finally defeated by the technomage, who very quick-wittedly grabbed a grav bike and flew to a neighbouring cliff face, from where he took sniper shots at the dragon using the Hungarian fire lance, while the dragon tore the top off of their skyship, trying to kill their fighter. They lost two of their party to the dragon, half of their followers, one of their grav bikes, the skyship and a chunk of their tower, and even when it was dead and had fallen to its doom in a valley it was still dangerous – two PCs went to look at the corpse and with its dying gaze it mesmerized one, trying to get him to attack the other one. This dragon was a really stunning and powerful encounter for everyone involved, and really impressed on me the joys of high-level adventuring (which I do rarely).
  • The Shrike Tree: The PCs discovered that the Pope and the church had taken control of the earth and controlled access to a lot of magical power, as well as holding open the gates between the planes, through a deal with hell. Particularly, an innocent figure was being eternally crucified in hell, and while this figure was there there was no way of stopping the pope from reincarnating. So the PCs entered hell and found the figure, which I think was Judas (my memory doesn’t serve me well now). Judas was pinned to a tree of thorns that grew in the centre of hell. The rest of the tree was covered in thorns too, and on every one a fairy was impaled (or some other good creature). In order to stop the reincarnation, the PCs had to kill Judas and then impale their own baby on the Shrike Tree. I got this idea from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, which I’d been reading at the time. The PCs’ journey through hell to here, and the subsequent mercy-killing of Judas and infanticide, were the first time I had ever set an adventure in another plane.
  • The River Styx and the Starbound Sea: After killing Judas, the entirety of hell turned on the PCs and they fled. They crossed the river styx and reached the gates of hell as they were closing, but a final, huge monster (the gatekeeper) attacked them and they had to flee, back into hell. Finally they somehow all got hurled into the river styx, where they were washed away downstream, until they all woke up, without their memories, on a beach of dark sand under a perfectly black sky. The beach was being gently lapped by waves from a sea that seemed to be teeming with stars. They knew nothing, but walking along the beach towards them was a character from a distant monastery – a monastery on another plane that the characters had previously visited to get information about the Shrike Tree. And it was here that the campaign ended, with the PCs having been successful, and lost everything.

Conclusion: Story-seeded sandboxes are fun

These settings were a lot of fun to think up and throw at the PCs, and really none of them (except the OTEC) were planned before the adventure started. We explored post-apocalyptic Europe together, and I made it up as I went. The only story goal I had when the campaign started was that the PCs would uncover the truth about the apocalypse, and maybe kill the pope. In the end they did much more than that, destroying the power of the church and establishing their own kingdom in the temporal world (which they then lost). But the details of all of that kind of drew together as we went, with me crafting the next stages of the plot from what the PCs had already done and found. It was a roller-coaster of a ride in a really dense, richly detailed science-fantasy world. If you have a strong setting, a vision of a final goal, interested players with interesting PCs, and a story seed that is both mysterious and compelling (and offers a lot of plot-intervention moments) you can create a truly exciting, long-lived and powerful campaign that is both sandbox and story. Well worth the effort!

This is one of a series I aim to run describing the old, successful campaigns I have run in the past. I think this was the second campaign I ever ran with a determined plot, to fruition, over a year or so in about 1998. My players were all friends rather than devoted nerds, though two were ex-players enticed back to the fold by me. The campaign setting was determinedly high fantasy, and it was the first and only campaign I ever ran in high level Rolemaster, starting at about 9th and ending at about 15th level. None of my players had done RM before and I had a very definite plan for this campaign, so I gave them their characters. In many ways this was the most railroad-y campaign I have ever played, and probably the most railroad-y anyone will ever play.

The setting

The setting was the borderlands between two huge Empires, the Northern Empire being a roughly Western European-style mediaeval Empire, and the Southern being an Oriental combined Chinese/Japanese Empire. To the West was an African/Islamic-style desert kingdom, separated from the Northern lands by a Mountain range occupied by elves. In between the Northern and Southern kingdoms were a series of small independent city states and countries, with the two most relevant to this story being the Kingdom of the Lakes, a little feudal kingdom carved out of nothing by a retired adventurer (and his big-cat riding soldiers), and the key city of the campaign, Innsfelle, a massive city-state resting between the Northern Empire and the Kingdom of the Lakes, heavily fortified and buttressed to the South by the Mountain range separating the North from the Kingdom of the Lakes. Innsfelle, famously impregnable and never having been defeated in war, famously independent, and in possession of a few small outlier towns scattered through hills, forests and farmlands; a city-state that is essentially part of the Northern Empire culturally, but ferociously politically and militarily independent.

The characters

The characters I handed out for the players to take on were very carefully designed to work together, and partly based on some PCs I and my friends played in 1995 in a previous campaign:

  • Kusumi, a Japanese-style Fighter, essentially a soldier, from common stock (not a Samurai) who is a crucial component of this campaign. He was a key part of the Southern Empire’s armies but joined a rebellion against the Empire, and rose up through the ranks of the rebellion; but at the last the leaders of the rebellion screwed him over (see below) so he took over a large chunk of the army and led it North. He has a single, historical adventuring experience with two of the other PCs. RM class: Fighter.
  • Amber, an Elven enchantress, who adventured briefly with Kusumi, helping him to crush a smuggling ring when he was in charge of security for a Southern Lord. Amber is cast out from her own community, having rejected an arranged wedding and fled her homeland to take up a life of adventuring. RM Class: Enchantress (Companion 1 I think?)
  • Cwael, a half-black (Western kingdom), half-elven assassin-hunter who has adventured for a very long time with Amber, and essentially thinks of himself as her bodyguard. RM Class: Nightblade (Companion 1: this is my favourite RM Class)
  • Eldar 1: I forget the PC’s actual name now, but he was basically a dark elf Rogue, and Amber’s lover. In this campaign the dark elf are called Eldar and are not evil black-skinned elves from underground; they are elves who were cast out of the Elven kingdoms many millenia ago and live as nomadic mercenaries, selling their martial skills to the highest bidder. Eldar 1 is a rogue but also the leader of a small warband of about 50 eldar (half of whom are combatant). The group has this warband at its disposal. Eldar are reviled by all civilised races, like gypsies, and live in caravans like gypsies; they are also the most vicious mercenaries the world knows, and of course capable of all the non-wartime adventurer-style nastiness that you can imagine a warband of dark elf mercenaries getting up to. RM Class: Rogue.
  • Asian 2: I can’t remember this PC’s name either, but he was a Southern Battle Mage, essentially a wizard trained in blowing shit up while soldiers run rampant around him. He and Kusumi fought extensively together in the Southern rebellion, and famously won the battle of the Oni Peaks before the rebellion (they had a magic bell). They rebelled together against the rebellion’s leaders and led their soldiers north. RM Class: Magician.

All the PCs started at 9th level. 9th level RM characters are a lot of fun.

The Adventure: background and purpose

The story opens with the area around Innsfelle in a state of war. Kusumi and Asian 2 were in a rebellion of young Lords in the Southern Empire, which went horribly wrong. The young Lords, finding themselves losing and being trapped in an increasingly small area, had barricaded their army in a mountain fastness and determined to commit suicide and take their whole army with them. Kusumi and Asian 2, discovering this, slaughtered the Southern Lords and fled North with their army. Reaching Innsfelle, they decided this seemed a perfectly good city, and thought they’d take it over. Thus, they laid siege to it and started capturing the outlying towns. Nice guys all round. However, they have until the end of Autumn to complete the job; it is expected that by the end of Autumn the Northern Queen will have finished putting down a rebellion to the East, and her crack force of rebellion-putter-downerers, the “Queen’s Men” will come to Innsfelle to sort stuff out. But Innsfelle, Kusumi and Asian 2 have discovered upon arrival, is impregnable…

… At which point the campaign starts, with Kusumi and Asian 2 stumbling upon their old allies Cwael and Amber in a battlefield full of dead Innsfelle soldiers. The Eldar warband controlled by Eldar 1 have ambushed and destroyed the soldiers, and Kusumi and Asian 2 been invited to the aftermath. Here Cwael and Amber reveal that they have a letter from the Mayor of Innsfelle, sent to an important General, which makes it pretty clear that the Mayor is using the war to enrich himself. He has set up a nest of “bandits” – actually soldiers in the mountains and they raid supply trains of the Mayor’s own army, then sell the items they steal, and return the tax money they loot to the Mayor. The Mayor is so confident in Innsfelle’s impregnability – and the Autumn arrival of the Queen’s Men – that he is willing to undermine his own war effort for short term wealth.

The characters realise that, if they can get more concrete proof of the Mayor’s perfidy, and subsequently capture Innsfelle, then they may be able to convince the Queen to grant them suzerainty over the city, since the exisitng mayor is a Right Proper Bastard. In order to do this they need to:

  • Prove the Mayor’s perfidy as extensively as possible
  • Find a way into the city
  • Make contact with the Queen

And thus the campaign unfolds, with the PCs having 3 months to capture a city.

Bsaic conditions of the campaign

The first thing to note about this little railroad is that none of the PCs can die. They are all essential to the plot (except maybe Eldar 1). Everyone knew this, but there were some famous moments in this campaign where everyone was in abject terror for their lives, despite the fact that they knew they had to be kept alive for the plot. It was through this process that I discovered that, with good storytelling, the proper choice of scenes and enemies, and the correct atmosphere, you can suspend or break every one of the supposed precepts of good adventure-setting, and particularly the notion of rewards and incentives is completely irrelevant if you’re running a fun campaign that everyone gets into in detail. There were no experience points in this campaign – I handed out levels at regular intervals – and no threat of death. Yet all my players acted on the assumption that all their actions were potentially deadly, and were the most cautious and inventive players you can imagine. I think this is because, more than any other campaign I have ever run, this campaign had a distinct and definite notion of “winning.” If Innsfelle fell into their possession at the end of the campaign, they had won – and beaten me – and if it didn’t, they had lost even though they lived.

Plus I set up a damn scary setting. During the campaign they discovered that actually the raids on the caravans by the mayor were cover for a search he was undertaking for a certain magic item, that would be used in a ritual on a hidden temple beneath Innsfelle. This ritual would free a Demon chained beneath the city millenia ago, and ultimately this campaign ended with the characters discovering the history and location of this demon, and banning it permanently. The quest for this demon and the truth behind it involved some exploration of frightening underground settings, interviews with dragons, and a variety of other scary encounters that kept the whole campaign in a continual atmosphere of creepy doom.

This is also the only campaign I’ve run where the PCs had extensive resources to call on from the start. They were mates with the leader of the Kingdom of the Lakes, and Amber was mates with a dragon, plus they had that Eldar warband, not to mention Kusumi’s entire army, at their disposal. Though all the adventures occurred on the level of the party, the campaign itself spanned a country-level war, with corresponding forces and resources in play. This gave the players a lot of flexibility in how to deal with particular problems.

The Eldar

During the campaign the PCs uncovered the mystery of why the Eldar were cast out from the Elven nation – essentially they refused to commit a terrible act as part of a war between elves and humans, and were exiled. This terrible act was related to the Demon locked under the city, and at one point the characters had to visit the ancient underground city in which the original Eldar were slaughtered by their elven compatriots for refusing to cooperate – the modern Eldar being the remnants of this slaughter. I can’t remember clearly now, but I think it was a type of Masada, in which the elves were surrounded and outnumbered, so decided to kill themselves and all the non-combatant elves in the city; but the Eldar objected and fled, fighting their way out of a secret entrance and sealing it behind themselves to avoid pursuit. Eldar 1 learnt all this history during the progress of the campaign.

Enlightenment man and Innsfelle

The PCs clearly constituted a group of outcasts, exiled from both their own lands and the city they aimed to capture, and in some case bound to a history of exile and revulsion. As the campaign developed this became an important theme, with all the PCs looking on their eventual capture of Innsfelle as an opportunity to establish a new kingdom of exiles in the gap between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and to establish a new polity based on the laws and histories of these exiles. As the game developed this became a kind of multicultural dream, with the PCs increasingly in a type of Hamlet role, as misunderstood thinkers standing on the edge of the Enlightenment, returned to a more brutal feudal world and hoping to change it to a new and brighter outlook. The players became quite driven by this quest by the end and, being in charge of armies and strategic decisions, were willing to make some quite hard decisions to get there.

Role-playing weekends

We also pioneered the “role-playing weekend” during this campaign. Two of the players moved in together in the Blue Mountains, and we went to their house twice to do all-weekend-long extravaganzas. In fact, the final concluding session of this campaign occurred as part of a weekend-long session. We would cook, drink and do other things as part of these weekends, but the main part was the 8-10 hour sessions we would do each day of the weekend. This type of immersion really helped to maintain the intense and broody mood of this campaign.

Resolution

In the end all the threads of the story – the Eldar history, the site of their original exile, the bound Demon, the treacherous mayor, the negotiations with the distant Queen, and Amber’s dragon ally – all came together to a cracker of a conclusion. Unfortunately, however, the players screwed up (I can’t remember how, now) and although they captured the city and were granted it in perpetuum by the Queen, they also accidentally unleashed the bound demon. The plan was to have a sequel campaign – a high-level RM campaign! – in which the PCs hunted down the demon. Unfortunately, 3 players had to move away and the sequel never happened. But the first part was an awesome campaign with a dark, frightening mood, a complex story enacted on many levels, and a group of interesting and well-developed PCs who became only more interesting over the course of the game. I consider this campaign to be the one in which I realised that role-playing can be about soooo much more than killing things and stealing their stuff (even though that was, writ large, the exact topic of this whole campaign!) It really provided me with an opportunity to run an absorbing, fascinating and complex story that was so much more than just another anodyne fantasy arc.