Monday, October 7, 2013

The Dying Earth - Scholasticarium Campaign - Setup and Prep

I picked up The Dying Earth by Jack Vance from the paperback SF&Fantasy spinner at the downtown library when I was thirteen. I'd read D&D Basic, but Vance whetted my imagination for fantasy roleplaying.

Through various wiles I was able to recently sell a fantasy-themed campaign to my group (consisting of Stan, Michelle, Bettie, and Faye). Stan was familiar with Vance's work, but the others were willing to pick up the theme through play. Stan is a long-term roleplayer, Michelle and Faye had some experience, and Bettie had none.

When I look for a roleplaying “game”, as in a ponderous tome to entice players to browse, the actual rules aren't very high on my list any more. I'm forty and my patience is not what it was when I was a kid, that's for damn sure.

Fate Core is about as complicated as I want to go, for the most part. Apocalypse World is another old reliable I use. My point is, I don't go for crunch any more. I'm happy to have tons of fiddly detail in-game, I just want it in character instead of trying to parse it through the rules.

So when I say we are playing The Dying Earth, by Pelgrane Press, I'm totally lying. We're playing a homebrew FATE strip-down similar to a system called FU.

Alternately, we're using a stripped down and remodeled version of The Dying Earth Quickstart Rules. (A lot of people might say we're playing freeform, “let's pretend” with some dice and some stuff written down. That's probably accurate, as well.)

On the other hand, in some respects, this game is the one where I'm using the texts the most of any campaign I've run. That's because the books (both Vance's work and the game text) are rife with detail that is useful regardless of whatever underlying mechanics are being used.

In particular I have to point out that The Player's Guide to Kaiin is probably the best damn roleplaying supplement I've ever used! It's written as a fully accessible tourist guide to the city, where the plot hooks are left right there hanging out for the players to grab and pull on. They don't have to go hunting for something interesting to happen – essentially, they can choose.

The guide also has an extensive section on the Scholasticarium of Kaiin, the college for aspiring magicians. (Think a much more dysfunctional Hogwart's, perched in the midst of a medieval city.) The relationship map and interfacing goals and quarrels of the existing professors and staff have served as a backdrop for the mischief the PCs have gotten up to, and they have already thrown things into a cocked hat, so to speak. The fallout is still ongoing.

My group could relate to bureaucracy either in the academic or corporate sense, so I pitched the game as a group of faculty magicians – powerful enough, but still fairly low on the prestige scale – who are tapped to research and counteract various threats. This particular goal has only been pursued, for the most part, only when it coincides with one of the PC's plans for self-improvement and enrichment. I couldn't be happier about that.

When I was younger, I'd plan out everything up front, try to fit in the PCs, and then run from there. Things would start strong, get a little wobbly and unfocused in the middle, and then end with some planned set-piece to leave them wanting more. It's a technique that worked pretty well GMing games on Neverwinter Nights 1 as well, as the game mechanics were automated and so kept the players busy with gameplay while my fellow Gms and I were setting up the next situation.

These days, though, I don't have the time and effort to commit to something before I know it's actually happening. Therefore, I end up going kind of Apocalypse World style, where the first session or two are fairly low-key while the GM sets up fronts and threats while also seeing what the players gravitate to. This can lead to some lower-energy starts, but can really build up strongly. (I also cop to being lower energy when I started this campaign, something I think I've gotten a good handle on and am now bringing my "A Game" each session.)

We met for our first session and discussed the theme and some influences. I described the comedy of manners and errors and picaresque journey tales of the Cugel and Rhialto stories. The RPG offers the power levels at Cugel, Turjan, and Rhialto levels. I settled on the middle level for power but the other styles, Cugel in particular, as thematic representation. Blackadder was mentioned, as well as the Jeeves stories by Wodehouse. In a way, we got started "playing" before we had even created characters, as we were all developing buyin to the feel of the game.

We are about three sessions in (plus a fair bit of "bluebooking" via email) and the characters have developed, grudges and alliances have been formed, and the core secret to advancing in status to Arch-Magician has been uncovered.