“Hey Dan, are you in town?” Asked Ian.
“I am actually.”
“Great. I need a game. I need a game bad.”
“Cool. I’d like to do some sort of mini-campaign. I’d rather not do a one-shot, I’ve done a million of those, but something more like a three-episode campaign would be neat.”
“Excellent. I’ll schedule it.”
“It’d have to be each weekend though. I won’t be in town long enough to do even bi-weekly.”
“Got it.” Ian hung up. A day or two later he called back.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said slowly, “The good news is I managed to get Alex and Jacques in on it.”
“That’s great!” I said, “I haven’t seen them in-”
“The bad news is… The only time we can all do it is this weekend.”
“Just a one-shot?”
“No. I mean a game on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
“… Okay, I can do it. See you then.”
Why, oh why did I say that?
I started sketching out the basic constraints I’d have to deal with. The most obvious one was that the first game was only four days away. I wouldn’t have the luxury of giving players time to create compelling characters with detailed goals and back-stories, then building the plot around them. Without that kind of character-investment, players wouldn’t come in with a defined goal they were motivated to pursue. I’d have to create that emotional investment within the game itself.
Normally a campaign benefits from some expository adventures. You can spend a few sessions getting to know the characters and setting through smaller jobs, so you feel genuinely invested when the villains disrupt the setting for the main plot.
Unfortunately, I only had three sessions. I couldn’t afford to spend a significant amount of time getting players invested in the world and characters before the crisis hit. I needed to get the players emotionally invested in the conflict as quickly as possible.
Looking for help, I turned to screen-writing. In screen-writing, the exposition chunk of a movie only lasts as long as it has to for the audience to understand why the conflict that disrupts the characters’ lives is a big deal.
Some great movies spend vast amounts of time on exposition. Others spend almost none. The classic example is Kramer vs Kramer. Everyone can immediately grasp why a wife walking out on her husband and child is a big deal. Thus, there’s basically no setup to that scene. It happens right at the start.
My problem was a bit different. I was trying get players to quickly care about what happened in the adventure. However, I could apply a similar solution.
To ensure my players cared about success and failure in the adventure, I could swim with the current of what players in an RPG would already want to do. That way, I wouldn’t need to invest time in getting players to care. They’d care from the get-go.
So… What are RPGs naturally about? What do players tend to care about the moment they sit down to play?
Progression comes to mind. This is the genre of level-ups after all. Players naturally want to increase their character’s power. Heck, progressing from a low level nobody to an epic-level hero is basically a mechanical representation of the hero’s journey.
I could work with that.
I told the players to come to the game without a character prepared. When they arrived, I gave them each a blank sheet of paper and told them to write their full names on it. They’d be playing as themselves.
I used a process of secret voting to come up with attributes for each player that accurately represented their real life abilities. Players had to estimate their own attribute scores, then they’d have a chance to vote on whether the other players’ scores were too high or low compared to reality. The scores were then adjusted based on the votes. At the end of the voting, if the scores didn’t seem appropriate, I would reduce the entire party’s attributes. This gave the players a heavy incentive to try to pick numbers that accurately represented themselves.
The next step was their inventory. I had them write down everything they’d brought with them to the game. They quickly began fishing through their packs and pockets, looking for anything that might prove useful in a coming challenge.
Finally they were informed that if they died in one of the sessions there would be no resurrections and no new characters. They’d be out of the rest of the campaign.
This setup provided a lot of benefits. First, it raised the stakes. Playing as yourself in a permadeath system meant that you had to be very worried about dying. Not only would you be out of the campaign, you’d feel like you had failed (not just a disposable character).
Additionally, the inventory system provided an immersive experience as players physically rifled through their packs in the search for something, anything they could use. It clearly connected players to the experience in a deep and satisfying way.
Finally, while we might expect our heroes to be bad-asses we know our own physical limitations far more intimately. Players were aware they were vulnerable. My opening would take full advantage of that.
The Game Begins
The game started with the players having just sat down to a game at their friend Dan Felder’s house. The next thing they knew, they were waking up in a basement that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie. Mildew mangled the walls, the crumbling bricks were cracked with earth and the old rot of floorboards formed the remnants of a floor. Glass lay shattered upon the staircase leading up, while a small tunnel had been clawed out of the wall behind them.
This spooky setup, combined with the above factors, meant that players were on high alert. As such, they paid excruciating attention to every word of description. They clearly realized that the right detail might save their lives… And missing a detail could cost them instead.
The experience was directly in line with my themes. Players were beginning with basically nothing. They had nothing more than they’d brought to the game with them that day. They had no special powers and no idea what was going on in the game. The opening had set forth a mystery, and intertwined it with fear of dying. The players were immediately invested in shining a light into the metaphorical darkness. They needed to find out what was going on, and they desperately wanted some way to defend themselves.
By framing their situation as a dangerous mystery, the players actively craved exposition. As the campaign continued, lore would be a precious commodity that players would seek out; rather than something to yawn through.
Things progressed from there. When a player acquired an item I’d scribble the stats on a note card and hand it to them. When they ripped up boards from the staircase to wield as weapons, I handed them note cards informing them that the splintered boards dealt 1d4 damage on attacks… And would break if a 1 was rolled.
In the future, all power gains would be given to them in the form of note cards (which represented gaining a new item more effectively than telling them to write the item’s stats on their character sheet).Players steadily acquired various spells and weapons, forced to put them to clever uses in order to survive their far more powerful foes. By the end of the campaign, they’d be rolling attacks more in the neighborhood of 5d20 damage… A far cry from their 1d4 floorboards. This provided a dramatic counterpoint to their humble beginnings. Indeed, I was careful to have both the size and quantity of the dice progress to reinforce a visual and tactile sense of progression.
The horror atmosphere, and the peril that would turn out to be around every corner, worked very well with the natural RPG gamer desire for power. Both those drives reinforced the other. The players wanted power to protect themselves, and they wanted power because improving your character feels great. Here it felt even better than normal, because they were playing themselves in the game. Improvement was self-improvement.
After escaping the deadly manor, in which two of the three players nearly died in their first encounter with a single skeleton, the players discovered that they were in a form of purgatory. As for why they had their items, this purgatory operated by the same rules as many ancient mythologies – you arrive in the afterlife with the objects you were buried or died with.
Now they were in a communal transitory plane between life and the afterlife of various realities in the multiverse… Including the fantasy reality of my primary campaign setting they’d played in so many times before.
The climax of the last campaign had eradicated all dark powers in the setting. While they were triumphant at the time, it turned out that this had included the entity that had watched over this transitory plane. In the absence of the Ferryman, the most powerful deceased spirit had taken over. It had built a fortress on the mountain that held the light which could carry souls to their appropriate afterlives. The fortress also inflicted a curse upon the land that drained the souls of each entity for its master’s personal power.
When an entity lost the last of its Soul, it became a Soulless – a mindless entity that exists with the pure emptiness of being. Desperate, aching for SOMETHING… These Soulless would prey on the living to devour their Experiences – their memories of their lives. With experiences came power, as the memory of how to fight, how to cast magical spells and so on are embodied in them. Yep, EXP drops on monsters were now part of the lore.
The constant drain meant that the players would be losing 2 Soul Points every hour of real time play, and they only had 30 to begin with. Since we’d planned three five-hour sessions, this put quite the clock on them. It also provided a compelling reason why the campaign would be exactly three sessions long.
Players had a strong motivation to escape as quickly as possible and hiding wasn’t an option. However, to escape they’d either need to sneak through the big bad’s fortress and escape to the afterlife, or else defeat him and save purgatory.
However, simply traversing the land was insanely deadly… And it got more dangerous closer to the mountain. The Soulless ones that had already devoured the experiences of multiple mortals turned their hunger to one another, growing in power. The more powerful the Soulless, the bigger other Soulless it could try to destroy – and thus gain more experiences from the kill.
This meant that power tended to congregate near power, and the further away from the starting area at the other end of the island (the Manor where the newly dead began) towards the mountain – the stronger things got. This meant the world itself scaled naturally.
Due to the drain on their Spirit, players didn’t have time to farm. They needed to power level as quickly as possible, taking on the most dangerous things they could feasibly take on at the time. Luckily, or unluckily, four of the Soulless that had risen above the rest to an epic extent. They’d been dubbed the Soulless Titans and had enough experiences to actually form diseased and disturbed personalities mashed together from blurred moments of their prey’s devoured lives. Three of them claimed their own territory while one, the Huntsman, rode wherever the heck he felt like. We had bosses they could try to take down. And if they figured out how, they’d get an epic power boost.
Players would be presented with multiple options for gaining power quickly, whether visiting locations on the island rich with experiences (each structure representing a different aspect of the human condition), or attempting to destroy one of the Soulless Titans. The locations would often involve aspects of roleplay or creative puzzle-solving to get the power there. Likewise, taking down a Titan simply couldn’t be done with brute force. You’d have to be very clever about it.
Providing these multiple options to the players was another technique to get them invested. By giving them a choice of which goals to pursue, they felt increasingly invested in the paths they chose. As described in Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive, providing options for how to approach a challenge is fantastic for making people feel more motivated to tackle it.
Unfortunately, with only four days to prep I didn’t have time to work out multiple branching paths. I only had time to build the basic identities of the various Titans and Locations they could pursue.
To solve this problem, I structured the adventures so that the players would end the first two sessions on a decision point of what to do next. Players ended the first session having learned about the multiple titans and locations they could pursue. I had them decide which they’d be pursuing the next day before they left. This gave me the rest of the evening and early next day to fill in the details of that adventure. A similar structure was used for session two.
Beyond the Veil, my working title for the campaign, would turn out to be a tremendous success. When asked about it, the players ranked it a 10 out of 10 and commented about how insane the tension was. The sense of immersion was highly praised, and there was a particular fondness expressed for how characters acquired abilities through gameplay rather than a leveling system. I’ll be talking about how I implemented those systems in another post.
However, if I had to pick the biggest factor for Beyond the Veil‘s success, I believe it was how seamlessly the plot meshed with the players’ natural desires. Everything players wanted to do was rewarded or required. They naturally wanted to gain power, and the story demanded they did. They naturally wanted to take down epic monsters, and the story heavily rewarded them for doing so. They naturally were thinking in terms of Experience Points, and the setting made that part of the lore. The sense of peril and mystery also made them want to gather as much exposition as they could.
It worked very, very well.