Well I’ve started yet another campaign with reddit strangers in meatspace. After not playing at all last year, I’m overdosing this year.
This will be an ongoing peek at how I DM and an overall record of this new campaign, warts and all. I will talk about what I did right, what I’ve done wrong, my methods, style and include all my notes and bits and pieces. This is not the One True Way, this is only mine.
A bit of some backstory to this campaign. Most of you know that I ran a campaign world for 25 years by the name of Drexlor. In this world I had a city that I wanted to be the source of all evil. It was named Galron (a corruption of the Klingon character, “Gowron” that I misheard all those years ago), and it was dubbed The City of Thieves, The Black Port (how cliche, eh?). Well, this city was going to be the worst of the worst – full of evil temples, slavery, rape-gangs, open murder, systemic corruption and violence, a secret police, drugs, torture, and every kind of horror scenario you can imagine.
Not exactly your typical D&D setting.
I’ve been wanting to run stories here for decades. I never did, mostly because the city itself scares the hell out of me. Its dark. Really dark. While I don’t have a problem with that, per se, what scared me was the logistics of building the city itself. Its 6 times larger than London. For someone who likes to draw his cities out in great detail, this was daunting in the extreme.
So I balked. For years.
But this city, it wouldn’t leave me alone. Waking me up in the middle of the night, stinky breath in my face, poking its bony fingers at me, giving me more and more ideas that I would frantically scribble down in the notepad I keep by my bed. Over the years I built up this massive pile of disjointed ideas in a messy folder – loose pages and half-scribbled nonsense. But this all percolated in the back of my mind, becoming something more than the sum of its parts – becoming something organic.
I wrote plenty of stories about the place. You can find some of them in this very blog. “The Telling”, “The Alleymen”, and “Morning in West Metal” come to mind.
About a month ago I sat straight up in bed in the middle of the night. This idea was blazing in my mind – hot and lacerating. I tore out into the lounge and fired up my computer and typed as fast as I could before I lost any of the nuance.
Here’s my notes, verbatim:
- A family of rogues, now aged and inmates in an asylum
- Three DM characters – The Man in the White Coat, John the Guard, and The Woman Who Always Smokes (Lying Cat – Saga)
- Telling their tale as memories – understanding what they endured – HOW DID THEY ESCAPE THE CITY???
- A series of conversations with The Man in the White Coat that take the form of flashbacks
- Cooperative character/memory building. Coop worldbuilding – (THE BURNING WHEEL – TALK TO RICK!!!)
- Use the sketches of the city as maps – swap them around!!!
There was also a lot of half-assed shorthand that wouldn’t make sense to any of you reading, so I’ve not included them – but they were mostly about the city itself and certain understandings that I have.
I will explain my notes in more detail, below.
I knew that I had to run this campaign. It was finally time. I couldn’t let this new idea go. It was too interesting. I also knew that it was going to take a very special group to pull it off. I didn’t have a pool of “knowns” to draw from; that is, players that I knew well and could recruit for this particular narrative. I had to go the “unknown” route. Very risky. But I put up a post on a local FB group and explained the premise. Very, very dark. All rogues. All humans. Urban. Highly focused on roleplaying.
I got 6 interested people. Reddit strangers. Always perilous. Differences in playstyle, expectations, even skill levels when it comes to navigating the actual rules-of-play. I think I did pretty well, however. Time will tell!
I laid out exactly what the campaign was going to be. I even included a list of questions(this is written in markdown, sorry about that) that I was going to ask them to develop their character, and asked if anything was “off the table”. They said anything was fair game. Thank Arneson. Leaves my hands free to take the narrative as dark as it needs to be.
So this is how its all going to work, and this is where I’ll explain the notes I listed above in more detail.
- The party is a family – 5 brothers and 1 sister (so nice to have a girl at my table again – been too long). They were born into Galron and brutalized. They were split up at a young age and then reunited as older teenagers (18-19) as a family, whereupon they decide to form a street gang for survival.
- The characters are unreliable narrators.
- The party, when the campaign opens, are all in their 80s, and are inmates in Greywall Asylum. The campaign is a series of flashbacks to their youth and adulthood in the Black Port.
- I will be playing 2 roles – the DM and the Asylum Meta-Characters.
The Meta are as follows:
- The Man in the White Coat. Has no name. Works as a therapist character. Trying to get the characters to reveal information.
- John the Guard. Never speaks. Is only referenced.
- The Woman Who Always Smokes. (DM NOTE: She is based on a character from the comic book, Saga. The character is Lying Cat, who only says “Lying” and knows when a lie has been told). She will smoke incessantly and only says “Lying” when I want to redirect the narrative.
- The party survived and escaped Galron. Something only a handful of people have done over the centuries of its existence. They are in an asylum, for a reason and part of the purpose of the campaign is to discover this reason.
- I have like 20 sketches of the city, all rough drafts, and all different. I decided I’d give these out to the party, and swap them around at-will, to reflect their fractured memories.
I wanted to do some cooperative character and worldbuilding. So I came up with that list of questions I linked earlier. This was designed to prompt them to give me improv answers that I could redirect or clarify. I didn’t use all the questions in the first session, but I’ll no doubt come back to them from time to time.
It worked, sort of. I’ve never done anything like this, so it was hit-and-miss. I’d like to do this kind of thing again, so this was a good first try.
I actually recorded this portion of the session. Hence the campaign name 🙂
I’ve not had time to listen to it, so I cannot attest to its quality or anything, and in fact may have inaudible parts (I don’t have the best phone).
The Tape – its 30 mins or so, about 4 mB. The first voice you’ll hear is mine 🙂
The party talked about the gang they wanted to form. I asked them to talk about the day they were reunited. I believe it was Archie (character name) who said they met back home and the house had been burned down. They decided to reflect the gang name in this event and dubbed themselves “The Black Phoenix”. Pretty cool.
They chose a leader and filled out the rest of the gang’s heirarchy and we talked a little bit about what neighborhood they would be from (Shadow Hill) and what deities they would pay fealty to.
I have a lot of work to do. I have to flesh out the Temple details, I have to draw a neighborhood map, come up with street gangs, build NPCs and figure out the best way to do the interludes with The Man in the White Coat.
All in all, pretty successful session zero.