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[PtA] New Horizons

Started by Darren Hill, September 06, 2005, 08:56:36 PM

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Darren Hill

In this post I'll discuss the campaign setup session, or Pre-production as we called it. In the next post, I'll describe the imaginary events of the first session which we played yesterday. And in the third post, I'll discuss player and producer actions and experiences - that's where I'll have a few questions.

So, Pre-production.

The Premise: Our heroes are the crew of a powerful, mysterious space craft who travel from world to world doing good deeds in a universe dominated by tyranny and injustice.

The Setting: it’s scifi; there are two great nations, one focussed on genetics and organic technology and rules in a feudal fashion; the other focussed on traditional but advanced electronics and cybernetics, with something like a capitalist corporate structure.
An uneasy peace exists between them, and the Brink is the new frontier caught between them, a border region settled by new frontiersmen and vagabonds.
The Brink a newly created ‘independent’ Administration which is responsible for policing the area, but it’s hamstrung by political interference from the great powers. It’s real function is to allow the Great Powers to keep an eye on their rival and ensure neither gets too much of a foothold in the region.
The Administration was deliberately set up to be weak, and poorly equipped, but soon after their ‘independence’ was ratified, an alien starship was found in the Armistice system. Neither power wanted the other to get the ship, so the least bad result was to allow the Administration to keep it – after all, what harm could one ship do?
Then came the job of selecting crew…
The Characters:
Captain Hanina Parion; Issue: privilege v self-worth – her life has been easy and privileged, and now she is insecure about her ability to do anything of real value.
Edge: Privileged Background – a member of the ruling family of one of the oldest and most important worlds in the Brink
Edge: Natural Leader – though she doesn’t know it.
Connection: Fencing Instructor; may be more to him than this, he was the person who showed her there was a world of downtrodden people outside  of her home.
Personal Set: Holodeck

Security Officer, Nathan: Issue: Authority. He is an ex-soldier, who got booted out of the service due to his indiscipline.
Edge: Ex-Marine; he served in the corporate empire, and among other things, he still has some military-grade cyberware.
Edge: One Dodgy Hombre: he is a dirty fighter, and knows all about the underbelly of society.
Connection: Colonel Meredith – a former commanding officer, who got his execution downgraded to kicked out of the service.
Personal Set: Ground Zero, a dive-style bar on Armistice Station.
Nemesis (maybe): Armistice Station Security Chief

Chief Engineer Brent Kovalik: Issue Somewhere to Belonging. He comes from the genetic empire, and doesn’t know how to cope outside of its strict caste system: can he find a new family?
Edge: Talented Engineer – he has a gift with machinery.
Edge: Space Vagabond: after leaving his home, for as yet unspecified reasons, he was never able to fit in anyway, and he went from one job to another in a descending trajectory…
Connection: someone in the prestigious Guild of Engineers.
Personal Set: Ground Zero, same as Nathan.
Nemesis: his clone brother Malthus, who is better than him in everything. He is the prodigal son to Brent’s Black Sheep.

Hotshot Pilot Jack Tully: Issue – to prove he is not just the best pilot in the galaxy.
Edge: Hotshot Pilot – he used to race yachts for the rich and decadent, until he got accused of cheating – no-one’s that good.
Edge: Raised as a Humanist; one of the religions in the Brink which believes in living off the land and being strong and self-reliant.
Connection: 2nd in command of Armistice Station, Evangeline Grace.
Personal Set: Ship‘s Galley
Nemesis: Miranda, ex-wife, who recently sold his yacht and among other things, bought Ground Zero.

Alex, Ship’s Physician. Issue: Justice v Freedom, or Individual right to self-determination. See below.
Edge: Romanov By Birth - he was brought up in the most powerful of the genetic Houses, and has an exceptional education, great wealth, and is a master strategist and manipulator. He’s also travelling under an assumed name – his background is a secret.
Edge: Medical Phenomenon – he has a gift for medicine, but he is also a genetic paragon, he himself is also a medical phenomenon.
Connection: Jared Hawk, The Fixer.
Personal Set: Med Lab
Nemesis: Disgraced Family Retainer, Boris Markov

Alex’s Secret: It turns out that a lot of the campaign setup was no accident. Somehow, Alex knew the ship was in the Armistice system. Somehow he manipulated events so that the ship was discovered only after the system was handed over. Then he took up an assumed identity as a physician and got himself appointed on the science team studying the ship and its neural interfaces – so he was then in a perfect position to influence crew screening.
In short, he chose the crew. A secret they aren’t aware of yet.
Alex is an idealist, and wants to protect the Brink from the tyranny of the two Great Powers - this is his issue. And it may yet turn him into a villain.
The Rest of The Crew: it turns out that the ship’s critical systems can only be crewed by people who have some quirk – a minor gift or talent, possibly psionic. Each of the crewmembers have an exceptional version of normal a skill: Hanina: charisma & leadership; Nathan – gift with weapons and tactics; Brent: engineering, and Jack: piloting.

So, that was Pre-production.
I think the players were pretty surprised how well pre-production went – how well the setting and characters took shape.
Once we’d got the setting worked out and turned to characters, they very nearly did the usual turn inward and start scribbling on paper, but after a few prompts and probing questions from me, and encouraging players to suggest things to each other, doing the character generation communally took on a life of its own.
Afterwards, everyone was enthused with that method of setting and character creation. Someone said that even if we never played PtA again, we can and should use this method of setting up campaigns with any game – a sentiment I agree with fully.

Darren Hill

It took longer than expected to get this typed up! I have a few questions scattered among the text - most are in italics.

Me – the Producer.
Helen - Captain Hanina Parion
Jim – Security Officer Nathan
Gary – Physician Alex
Mark – Engineer, Brent Kovalik
Stuart – Jack Tully, Hotshot Pilot

The ship is just entering service, and someone wants to steal it. So they rig up a disaster on a far-flung colony to attract it – and cause it to head out unprepared, where they’ll be waiting to grab it, thanks in part to having an inside man or two.
I expected the bad guys to be pirates, and planned to leave hints that one of the two big empires might be working with them. Things didn’t go according to plan :)

I give a fair bit of detail over the first six scenes, and deal with the rest fairly briefly. We played 22 scenes in under 3 hours.

The producer describes a scene on a colony, farmers in fields, one person collapsing, and others recoiling from the blotches on their face.
Then cut to a briefing room; the ship was about to begin a shakedown cruise, when a distress call is picked up – the distant colony of Harmony is facing an outbreak of Tanian Flu, and only the Horizon can get the antidote there before the colony is wiped out. (Count the Star Trek clichés in that setup!)
So, in the first round of scenes, the players boarded their ship, met with the physician assigned to carry the antidote and his escort of marines.

Helen’s turn to request a scene. She suggested that the group get on the teleport bay and beam aboard the ship. That seemed a little empty to me and prompted a discussion about what scenes are for. So we planned the first turn of scene requests here, to get things moving.
The players board the ship and meet the physician, Dr Boris Markov carrying the antidote. He happens to be Alex’s nemesis and knows his real identity. He keeps this secret, but Alex doesn’t find out why.
Markov has a pretty assistant, Tanara Lucien, and Alex is most upset to learn that Markov has poisoned her mind against him – harder seduction attempt.

anticipating trouble on the colony, Markov has an escort of marines. The security officer, Nathan, wants them to stow their weapons – they want to keep them. Hanina gets herself involved in this conflict by comlink, and she wins. Nathan again proves himself ineffectual with regards to uniformed types.

the Engineer, Brent, starts powering up the ship – he has been warned that the drives haven’t been tested above 70%, but they need to go to 90% to reach the colony in time. He succeeds, and narrates, describing something cool I forget.
A fairly weak conflict, here – I was thinking of traditional task resolution. But as noted above, the first turn of scene requests and conflicts was decided during scene 2 to get things moving.

The pilot, Jack, has power.
We had a little digression here about the nature of space travel, and decided on a B5-like model – big ships could open their own portals. We added that hyperspace was disrupted in a system-wide area around a stargate – so the only entry into a system had to be via stargate, unless you popped into normal space a fair distance away – allowing systems to have practical defences.
Jack set himself a conflict – pilot the ship through the stargate. This wasn’t about success or failure. This was his first opportunity to take the ship into hyperspace – was he going to be practical, or was he going to give in to his flyboy tendency to show off and do something foolish?
He failed, and so performed a flyboy stunt and took the ship on a ridiculously overpowered charge at an angle into the tiny bulls-eye of the gate – while the engineer shouted at him to take it easy.
As the ship passed through the gate, there was an explosion in engineering, and the ship was suddenly adrift in hyperspace.
This came about because of some confusion – the conflict was clearly described as above: not a success/fail task. But a couple of players didn’t realise this, and started discussing what failure would mean here – and we all got sucked in.
I think the ephemeral nature of the conflict outcome contributed to this: we are used to concrete game mechanical outcomes, and the having a conflict over how a character acted and looked to the audience seemed to be lacking something.

The protagonists discovered sabotage, and learned that one of the maintenance crews from the station had planted these charges – they had kosher authorisations: someone high up had helped them up. Cool, corruption!
They had more trouble with the marines, as they tried to get their weapons back – and were rebuffed.
Many scenes seemed to lead directly to an obvious conflict. So the player would request a scene, stating certain things. Then the Producer would basically set the scene and just repeat that stuff. And we’d do a conflict.
Something is clearly wrong there. Does this sound familiar, any clue on what we are doing wrong? What proportion of a scene should be in the roleplaying leading up to a conflict, and how much should be the conflict itself? In our game, it was basically almost entirely conflict and resolution.
Worse, a couple of scene requests were overt uses of director stance – for example, Jim called for a scene which involved no protagonists, and described the marines turning against their officer, and revealing their were saboteurs.
I told him that scenes have to include a Protagonist. But then I thought about TV shows with cutscenes in which things happen that don’t involve the main cast. Can you do them in PtA?
Also, I said that I didn’t think that players had the authority to declare GM-style plot details without getting narration first or calling for a conflict about it. But that made me wonder - what is the the Producer’s role in PTA with regard to the unfolding narrative (gosh, it’s hard avoiding problematic words like “plot” and “story”)? Should the Producer have a prepared plot, should he make decisions about whether certain characters are bad guys or good guys or have prepared motivations, or is all this stuff up for grabs to whoever has narration? I decided that the way I’d do until I consulted the Forge: anything I told the players out-of-game was established fact, and everything else is up for grabs.

I liked the player’s suggestion of the marines being bad guys, and so went with that – I’d already decided that Tanara was a bad guy too.
So, some players accidentally overheard the marines turning against their boss, and had a running battle with them. They won, and then two players had a conflict over whether to kill them or keep them captive. Nathan, who wanted to kill them, won, and he also got narration: The marines had told them that they just wanted the ship, and would have let the players leave in an escape pod. Jack wanted them alive; Nathan didn’t want them aboard ship, and so had them put in the escape pod meant for the PCs and ejected – at which point it exploded. The marines had planned to kill them after all!
Those on the bridge had to deal with Tanara, and as she fled, they pinned her between ship bulkheads. Then she threatened them with the other bomb on board – but Alex jammed her signal and she was subdued.
One scene was interesting here. We knew an impostor marine was going to ambush Brent, who didn’t know they were bad guys yet. So the marine would walk up casually, and when Brent turned back to his repairs, would cold-cock him.
Brent’s player used his Space Vagabond trait to have a flashback in the Ground Zero, a bar on Armistice Station, where the ‘marine’ would be working as a bodyguard for some heavy – thus revealing he wasn’t a marine. I got confused here, thinking he’d actually requested the scene as a flashback in Ground Zero, which I was cool with, but it made things confusing. It wouldn’t have happened if we had a clearer demarcation between scene request and playing out the scene.

the ship was repaired, they arrived at the colony, and distributed medicine. They then decided what to do with Tanara.
Hanina and Brent wanted her taken back for justice, Nathan wanted her dead, Jack wanted her handed over to the colonists whose lives her plot had threatened, and Alex wanted to help Hanina and Brent’s argument – but behind the scenes he wanted to help her escape. (Gary decided Alex was attracted to her, and thought she’d make a better Nemesis than Markov.)
I resolved all this with a single conflict: Stuart/Jack won the conflict so she was handed over to the colonists. This meant that Alex couldn’t release her.
Now I’m not sure if I did it right. I could have done it this way: the conflict was over what the group decided in the open to do with Tanara. Alex could have helped out here, and if he failed to beat the Producer, he would have been bound by that decision. If he had beat the Producer, he could have had a second conflict in his next scene over his attempt to release her.
Which is right?

Brent – looking surprised as he sees his clone brother who says, “Your performance is unsatisfactory. I’m here to replace you.” (It’s his spotlight episode…)
Jack: meeting his ex-wife (and Nemesis), who tells him she is the new owner of Ground Zero (the personal set of two PCs).
Alex: looking at a computer monitor, and saying, “that doesn’t make sense.”
Hanina: in the holodeck, fencing.
Nathan: holding Brent (or is it his clone brother?) by the throat with his gun at his head…