Sunday, December 20, 2009

Idea Garage Sale: The Small Boat Campaign

The Invader has conquered the keep on the coast. The Lord is dead and a new Lord sits on his chair. Similar scenes have been enacted up and down this coast, and sometimes the entire staff is massacred, but this Invader thinks there are people it's not worth soiling his hands with. Most of the inhabitants have accepted the new status quo (after all, how do you think the old Lord's ancestors got their position, picking daisies?), but a small handful of people, not worth fearing, have refused to swear fealty, and the Invader has placed them in a small boat with two oars, a keg of water, a box of food, and whatever they stood up in. Who are you? Why are you in the boat? What will you do now?

There's more than one way to tell a story. Remember when you were little, playing pretend games with your friends, making stories, and how they tended to break down because everyone wanted to be the hero? Well, back in the 70s that problem was solved with the invention of the Role-Playing Game, in which rules govern who can do what and one person - the Game Master, Referee, or whatever your system calls that role - adjudicates how the rules work, presents the problem, and runs the villains and minor characters. Everybody else gets to be a hero.

I love RPGs. They give me the chance to be someone besides me for a change and to collaborate with other creative minds, something I'm not normally good at. My basic social circle is my gaming group. Acting as Game Master with the use of published adventure scenarios (all of which needed heavy modification to accommodate our play style) was a big help in getting my creative muscles back into shape so I could write again after the Year from Hell. Now that I'm writing books again, I don't have time for it. Running a game is a labor-intensive, time-intensive amusement, and unless you get a job with a gaming company, which is way out of my ambition range, you don't get paid for it - except in the satisfaction of creating and running a game that your friends enjoy. In which case your reward is going to be more work.

The difference between a Campaign and a Novel is, that you as Game Master don't control the Campaign the way you as Author control a Novel. Yeah, as an author you often feel that the characters are running away with the story, that you are writing to find out what happens next, or that you are constrained by some exterior circumstance - your plot has to fit, geographically and chronologically, in the overall landscape of the contemporary world, or the Civil War, or the laws of physics. But all that happens between your own set of ears. You create all the characters and the plot proceeds in a way that makes sense to you.

This is not true in a role-playing game at all. It is a cliche of the genre that no scenario survives contact with the players. You think you've put in a big blinking neon sign pointing to your story, and they run off in a different direction after some little butterfly you tossed in for verisimilitude. You could try to force them back on track, but that tends to ruin the fun. Nobody likes a Railroad GM (a gamemaster whose story runs on tracks, and whose course cannot be altered by anything the players do). So - you let them go off after the butterfly and you run to catch up. You improvise. You toss them an easy puzzle, and they can't solve it; you set up an encounter you think hopelessly outmatches them and will end with them in the dungeons of the Bad Guy, where you can finally get back to your original plot, and they pull off some stunt that you could never have anticipated and wind up running the Bad Guy's show.

I may yet run the Small Boat Campaign, but feel free to take it over if you want. Depending on who is playing and the characters they produce, it could play out dozens of different ways. If the players decide that they are the original Lord's illegitimate half-brother, the nurse who has rescued the Lord's heir by claiming it's her own baby, the herald's apprentice, and a page boy who's father is a knight whose castle down the coast a way was conquered last week, they're going to want to go to an unfallen keep and devote the campaign to turning back the invader. If the players are a wandering bard who was only passing through, an unlanded knight who objects to the Invaders' religion but has no pre-existing loyalty, and a shipwrecked sailor, you might find them heading out in pursuit of rumors of the Isles of the Blessed and yourself running a campaign of exploration and derring-do. As GM, my job would be to pick a rule system, of which there are dozens, and create enough of a background for the players to make intelligent choices about who they want to be and what they want to do; then to fill in that background and create characters, cities, countries, and a world in response to the choices they make.

I won't be doing it any time soon, because I have books to write, and I don't have time to draw the campaign I started in the wake of The Year From Hell to a satisfactory conclusion. My players have considerable emotional investment in those characters and they deserve a good ending before I start something else. Also, making a campaign from scratch like that is just as much work as writing a book and I don't have energy to write two books at once, so I have to focus on the one that might someday result in income. But sometimes the campaign ideas bob up, so for what it's worth - there it is.


  1. Stayed up until 2:30 am reading Lost (my son's book) and we are both dying to know if there will be a sequel! Sorry, I know this isn't the right place to be asking this question, but couldn't find another way to contact you. Please feel free to delete this if I shouldn't have posted! Blessings,Susanna

  2. I wish I could tell you yes, but the sales numbers don't justify it to the publishing house. Someday I'll write another Pleistocene book, but it won't have the same characters.

    I'm glad you could find the blog, as when I run my name into google it doesn't come up. Didn't you find my webpage? That has an e-mail link at the bottom.