This is a followup to my SA+WFRP=Doom
post from a bit ago, and also to a blog post from last year
talking about successes and failures I've had as GM in the past.
To sum those up briefly: I love me my rules-light combat and adventure games like Marvel Super Heroes and Savage Worlds and Star Wars and C&C and so forth, and I also love games like Burning Wheel and Riddle of Steel that have excellent narrative meat under all their seductive sword-sauce. I've been wanting to take advantage of the powerful player-engagement techniques of those game while still getting my old-school kicks. And I've also not got the energy to recruit and sell people on an unfamiliar game; I've done game evangelism in the past, and I'm worn out on it.
In my circles in Seattle, for whatever reason, we have a number of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play afficiandos, so when it came time for me to scratch the GM itch and pitch a new game, I went in that direction. For those who haven't played it, WFRP is a fairly traditional human-elf-dwarf-hobbit fantasy game with a dark, almost Cthulhu-ish vibe. I love its brutal grittiness and muddy stakes. And the character creation system makes for lovely strange bedfellows in the party -- you can have ratcatchers adventuring alongside squires and garbage pickers studying to become priests. It's a refreshing change from the chrome armor and niche protection of D&D and its ilk.
Tonight was Session 0, for character creation, setting chat, system demoing, scheduling, and what have you. I have five players, though only four were present. These are all gamers who come from pretty traditional gaming backgrounds, and who have old gamer habits. All have the traditional "my guy" boundaries when it comes to characters, and all appear to expect a strongly GM-driven scenario. I pitched them a starting point--the immediate aftermath of a sack of a major city by those evil Chaos forces--and this was adopted by the group without modification. I wanted something strongly Warhammer flavored, and the quest for survival and escape--or, perhaps, ratlike prosperity--within a sacked city seemed like a good scenario. Plus, it was a decent opportunity to jam them all together in a basement as they sought shelter from the ravening Chaos horde, so we had a nice, organic "you all meet in a tavern" moment.
But I've learned that a starting point isn't enough--I've had campaigns with fun starting points flop on me before. This time, I wanted to have a direction to go in, and hints as to how to engage the players. So, with RoS and BW in mind, I bolted three extra player-driven things onto WFRP.
First, Doom. To explain Doom, I have to explain Fate Points. These are essentially extra lives that a player can spend when their characters need to miraculously escape mortal peril. These are an extremely precious and limited resource, and earning replacement points is entirely by GM fiat.
A character's Doom is composed of two of Who, What, Where, When, or Why. When characters opt to face a peril pertaining to their Doom, they can't spend a fate point to escape that situation, but if they face it and live, they receive a new fate point. They also receive bonus rerolls during Doom scenes, so that if they do go down, they'll go down like badasses.
To ensure there wasn't any actor / author firewalling confusion amongst these old-schoolers, I ruled that characters are fully aware of their Doom -- they receive visions as part of their coming of age rituals. So the players don't need to be feeling guilty about racing towards their Doom (if they've got no Fate points, and thus, nothing to lose), or running away from it (if they have FP's, and thus, something to lose.)
So that's Doom.
The second bolt-on was Career Planning. See, WFRP has lots and lots and lots of occupations for characters to practice. Thes describe exactly what the character does to make ends meet. You don't have mere fighters; you have Trollslayers and gladiators and mercenaries. You don't have thieves; you have outlaws and highwaymen and second-story men and cutpurses, and so on. And there's many lovely marginal occupations like bonepickers and grave robbers and rat catchers and agitators to spice things up, each with lots of story potential and color. (Sadly, the official adventures usually fail to use this power, but that's a gripe for another time.)
You roll a career randomly when you start. After you go as far as you can in that career, you can pay some XP and choose another career. Each careers comes with a set of game bennies -- skills, talents, attribute increases, and so forth--so choosing careers in WFRP is a major gamist deal, akin to choosing a feat tree in D&D. WFRP has loose rules that encourage characters to make a logical progression in their careers, so that cutpurses move onto other criminal occupations and gladiators move to fighterly jobs. The penalty for violating this rule is pretty mild, however.
With that in mind, I told the players that if they preselected their second career , they could have it at a reduced XP cost when the time came to move out of their first. The players all jumped at this, and now I know the general direction they want their characters to go in.
Finally, there was some pretty standard stuff: I gave them some bonus XP for telling me what they were doing the day before the city fell, and more bonus XP for bringing in a figure of their character. I love playing on a map with figures. They all took me up on this.
So now I know each character's past, future, and fate. Lindara the Elven Trade Envoy wants to be an innkeeper and will die while dancing with hobbits. Klaus the Bonepicker wants to be a priest of the death god Morr, and will die with the undead on the water. Thurgrim the Dwarf Noble was drinking himself silly at a masquerade ball while the Chaos armies knocked down the walls, and he wants to hone his skills as a Duelist--but regrettably, fate has decreed that Thurgrim will die at the hands of his own people. Two of the characters aren't complete yet, although one will die with only the will-o-wisps to mourn him, and another was escorting nobles in escape plots up to the very end.
Just right there, I have nine story elements that will draw people's attention. I'm hoping that when one of those elements pops up, the player will be energized by the warmth of the spotlight on their neck, and I'm hoping that when I manage to wrap two or three of them together into a single scene, that there will be explosive and bloody climax.
I feel better-armed for this game than for any other game I've ever played. And there was this lovely moment when it all crystalized for us. When we were talking about Lindara's Innkeeper future and dancing hobbit doom, someone cracked, "uh-oh, guess who's hosting the hobbit weddings!"
We all laughed and oohed, but it wasn't just a funny ha-ha gamer moment. It felt to me like something had been launched.