Sunday, May 23, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Feudal Reconstruction

All this reading about the Civil War and Reconstruction had made me realize how rich an environment history would be for a campaign. All those internal conflicts, all those impossible decisions, all that rabidity, all that intimacy among people with opposing interests, all those ad-hoc alliances, all those Indians and bushwhackers and vigilance committees. Routine trading with the enemy because the enemy had what you needed and needed what you had; besides, the trading relationships you had before the war didn't go away when your state took a political position diametrically opposed to his state's. Slaves who ran the plantations while their masters (often their blood relatives) were away, and were - not exactly rewarded for their selflessness, which was probably also self-interest - afterward. No matter what your opinion might be or who you were, it could get you killed if you spoke the wrong word to the wrong person, and the wrong person could be anybody, the wrong word could be any word.

However interesting all this is, even 150 years on the issues are too raw and controversial to make for comfortable roleplaying. At least one thing I said in that last paragraph probably made you uncomfortable, if you're American; I wouldn't venture to guess which sentence bothered you, but I'm sure every sentence would bother somebody. We have all been taught a lot of nonsense about the Civil War and most of us have an emotional investment in some bit of that nonsense, even if we can be objective about the rest of it. The urge to simplify history into good guys vs. bad guys expresses in the typical RPG as a structure which makes good vs. evil struggles almost mandatory; and that doesn't model the real situation well. Even in a group like ours, which deals better with moral ambiguity than most groups and has evolved a strategy for negotiating alignment disagreements (the most potentially savage disagreements in role-playing, because they touch so closely on real-life morality), is not necessarily going to enjoy role-playing in a situation this close to home.

The simplest way to deal with this is to change the setting to a generic medieval fantasy one. Almost any system will do, though it wouldn't surprise me to find that the Harn setting had already done most of the work for you. You design an isolated small political unit - ideally a single manor or barony. The country has recently gone through a succession (as opposed to secession!) crisis, in which the side the lord of the manor or baron lost. The campaign locale is isolated from the main field of battle, but has suffered economically and lost a lot of able-bodied men. Also, its isolation has tended to attract deserters during the war and disaffected knights who refuse to accept the new status quo, both of whom set up as roving bandits in the greenwood.

In order for this to work to defuse emotional investment in the issues involved, both the claims should have been about equally good. Because of the way feudal obligations are set up, probably the lord didn't care about the rights or wrongs of the succession claim, but followed the lead of his liege. As far as he was concerned, the issues weren't political, but personal. Others in his area of responsibility might feel differently. This lord was killed in battle, and he leaves a widow and at least one daughter (no sons). The person who killed him in battle has also died, leaving two sons.

The new king (or queen, whatever; new monarch anyway) decides that the minimally disruptive way to deal with this territory and reward faithful service is to marry the lord's daughter to the second son of the man who killed him. This son, who would otherwise be landless, is to move in, pacify the region, and make everything hunky-dory again.

Having mapped the immediate area in some detail - bare minimum, the central estate, supporting peasant village, and enough greenwood and rugged hills to shelter the bandits - and the surrounding area more vaguely, defined the feudal relationships of the inhabitants to eachother and the outside world, and given names and some general stats, but no personality or alignment, to some prominent NPCs (possibly only the new monarch) the DM would then present the situation to the players and tell them to make a character, any character, to fit into this mileu. This should be done as a group project. If somebody wants to play the widow, the forcibly affianced daughter, the imposed lord, a bandit leader, any of the on-site characters who would normally be NPCs setting the tone for the campaign, let them. They can even define some NPCs in relation to themselves - for instance, "I want to play the widow, and the daughter isn't old enough to be married yet, so I'm acting as regent for her." The only limitation should be that all the players agree on how and why their characters will naturally work together as a party for similar goals.

In my experience, failure to reach such an agreement is the #1 cause of party conflict. That one guy who just has to play a Babylonian in a Celtic campaign, but would immediately design a Celtic character if you changed to a Babylonian campaign, has to be required to address this issue up front or you'll be dealing with that instead of playing most of the time. It's all right to play an outsider, and the source literature most of us draw on often has outsiders as protagonists; but a role-playing game is based on the party, not the individual. It's the player's responsibility, not the game master's, to provide a motivation for the outsider to participate.

The players will of course be full of questions about these key NPCs, insisting that they can't make their characters without this knowledge; but, until the characters are made, this knowledge will not exist. For maximum comfort of play, the players will be the ones setting the primary conflict and the degree of moral realism they want to deal with.

The barony might be a hotbed of rebellion, the widow and daughter and their steward evil schemers, in league with the bandits. This is the scenario to choose if the players have decided to be the new lord and his entourage, a shining band of paladins bringing relief and order to an overtaxed and oppressed peasantry who have suffered too long. In which case, that forced marriage poses a pretty problem to the player who volunteered to play the new lord. Your first adventure problem stands before you: How will the players deal with the plot to murder the new lord on his wedding day and frame an innocent, loyal man? And by the way, how does he maintain a marriage and his legitimacy as ruler without violating his principles and becoming a rapist? (Hey, they asked for it. Don't play a paladin if you can't face up to the tough moral problems!)

The new king might be an evil tyrant, punishing the good and gentle people who opposed him with ruinous taxation, human rights violations, and cruel overlords reducing them all to slavery. This would be the natural result of the players deciding to play a Robin-Hood-style band of merry men; or any assortment of types who are characterized as loyal to the old regime and dedicated to resisting the new. If one of your players is all afire to play the widow or the daughter, in this scenario, she'll probably have a vision of how to do so that will set the tone for the whole campaign and lay the first adventure in your lap. Running away to the greenwood and forcing the new lord to assume control without the gloss of legitimacy, for example, only requires you to build the factors restraining her from doing so, with a view to rendering the rest of the party necessary to assist her.

I can most readily imagine my own group creating a conglomerate party from both sides of the conflict: A noble squire personally sworn to the new lord, the son or daughter of the widow's personal bodyguard, an ambitious peasant with a useful set of skills, a minor religious personage attached to either the household or the entourage (most medieval RPGs have healing tied to religious professions), maybe even a bandit come in from the cold. They would leave the new lord, the widow, and the bride alone to be NPCs, and in this case, though you could make the widow a resentful schemer who can't forgive her new son-in-law, the most reasonable character to give the Lord and Lady is that of two people determined to set aside their differences (after all, the Lord didn't kill the father personally and it was an honorable death) and restore law and order. The party would then be a deliberately-chosen coalition intended to act as troubleshooters and sent off on missions.

Monsters, unruly neighboring lords, unreconstructed outlaws, scheming courtiers, rebellious peasants (with and without legitimate gripes), and opportunistic carpetbaggers undermining the new lord's policies would be the primary foes. Your bandit-come-in-from-the-cold might create a Big Bad as part of his backstory in the form of a bandit leader he ran away from, determined to set up his own fiefdom here on the fringes of civilization, to include the target locale. Your squire might know things about the new king that the new lord doesn't want to believe because his moral standards are higher than the king's.

The GM should, in fact, encourage the players to create backstories with story hooks in them; and should, once provided with them, use them. Even if the hook is not one that appeals to you at first. You don't, after all, have to use it in the way the player is trying to manipulate you into using it! This is true regardless of the campaign.

This concept, like the Small Boat Campaign, would require a lot of flexibility on the GM's part and maturity on the parts of the players. But any good game does. The two most common kinds of unsatisfactory campaigns are the Railroad Plot (the GM has overdetermined what should happen and the players have limited freedom) and Total Plotlessness (the players have unlimited freedom but no goals). In both, the players' choices are meaningless.

Novels and role-playing games are different in a lot of important ways: the team-as-protagonist is difficult-to-impossible in novels, but necessary in RPGs; knowing where your story is going is necessary in novels but almost impossible, without railroading, in RPGs (and decreases the fun; the best moment in any game is the moment when the players come out of left field with a solution the GM would never have thought of in a million years); RPGs reproduce the texture of real life while novels streamline it; and so on. But they are alike in this.

The characters' choices must have meaning, or the whole thing is pointless.

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