Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Game I Rarely Blog About (Yet I'm Loving It)

I almost never blog about my Continuum RPG campaign, despite it going really smashingly well of late. It's so complex that the amount of time I have to work on it between sessions is a lot better spent actually prepping for the next session instead of blogging about what we've already done. Plus, with how many mystery plotlines I run in it, and the non-linear nature of a Time Travel game, it's not often that I can safely post our recent events without potentially giving something away to the players should they read my blog. However, since we're not gaming this week due to the holidays,  I've actually got a few spare minutes. The campaign has been running for just over a year now, and it's high time I talk about it at length, or at least reflect and summarize.

Mechanics: I converted Continuum to the Gumshoe system. Gumshoe is a light and flexible system that's designed to run mysteries. It features streamlined rules and very little random chance, which is good because the original Continuum system can be a little unforgiving on the players. I'm not going to go into detail here and now on what I tweaked mechanically to make the conversion work, because I'd rather spend my energies describing characters and plot. For now, we'll just let it stand at "I changed a few things, and they work great. Continuum-Gumshoe hybrid is an awesome little system that really facilitates role-playing and problem-solving."

Characters: We started with 5 player characters. They are/were:
  • Declan McGee, a balding field epidemiologist for the Center for Disease Control
  • Ronald Weiss, a nerdy behavioral psychologist and part-time adviser to mentalist Derren Brown
  • Casey Yoder, a pot-smoking former real-estate agent turned amateur ghost hunter
  • Grace Blackwood, an psychic and author of books on religion and occult
  • Mercy Blackwood, Grace's twin sister, whose line of work is basically being "Indiana Jones" for the Smithsonian Institute
Of course, that's only scratching the surface. It is a time-travel game, after all, so what they did before they discovered the secret of spanning the centuries is only a tiny fraction of the character. One interesting thing to note is the great variation in world view. The first two characters are a lot more skeptical and rational than the last three, and there have been some great in-character debates about ghosts, psionics, and magic. And the final character on that list has a much rustier moral compass than the other four.

Mentor and Corner: At this point I should also mention my first NPC, Heilyn Stonhewer. I let the players have a lot of input in the creation of this character, who would serve as their Mentor and main go-to-guy, especially in the early stages of the campaign.
  • They said they wanted him to be from far down in the mists of time, with links to the Druids and Celts and the like. 
  • They wanted the Corner (the PC's HQ, effectively) to be based out of some old castle in the UK, and that this NPC mentor should also have had a hand in it's build way back in the day. 
  • They requested he be capable of tough love, but not generally inclined to it. They wanted him to let them get into trouble, but act as a safety valve if they got in too deep.
  • They wanted him to have once run afoul of The Maxims, having fallen in with villains and become either a Narcissist (the Enemy) or a Lost Cause (nearly fragmented out of existence) at some point, and having pulled himself back up by his bootstraps when no one sane would trust him.
  • And since only one of the PCs had any combat skills, it wouldn't hurt for the Mentor to be crackerjacks with a weapon or two.
It was a tall order, and tricky to put in place without overshadowing the PCs. I didn't want him to steal their thunder, even if they'd asked me to. I am not a fan of the GMPC concept/phenomenon. It was a little shaky at first, but I eventually got a handle on it thanks in no small part to his sordid and checkered past. While he's got more skills than the PCs, he often needs them to be his frontman (frontmen? frontpeople?) because other NPCs tend to respond poorly to him or his reputation.

The castle chosen was Caerphilly Castle, half a dozen miles NW of Cardiff.  As corner's go, it's pretty sweet. I had to play a little loose with the CADW (Welsh Historical Society) and visiting hours to make it feasible, but it's oozing flavor and history, so it's worth a little reality juggling.

Video Conferencing: The 5 players portraying these PCs live in 3 different cities, so it's an online game. We started with Skype, and then switched to MeBeam because it could handle 6-way video conferencing.  Eventually MeBeam went down (I'm not certain of the details, but I suspect they're not around as a company anymore), so we switched to TinyChat. There have been a few technical hurdles time and again, but in general I'm really pleased with TinyChat for multi-player group RPGs, and would stick with just Skype when running a 1-on-1 "solo" game.

Wiki: Only 2 of the 5 players had any previous Continuum experience, and only 1 of the players knew the Gumshoe system. So a lot of my early prep work was spent making a Wiki where I explained the rules and the setting.  I knew that was going to be a lot of effort going in, and I was a little worried that the technical bugaboos of online gaming would smother me, so I decided to reign in my larger ambitions and start with a published adventure, David Trimboli's "Identity Is All".

As it turns out, a Wiki was a great move. We've set up a communal spanlog on it, and the players take all sorts of notes online as well. It being a game where every PC can fold time and space to their will, it becomes necessary to keep good notes of what happened where and when, so you can revisit your personal past. The Wiki structure really promotes that well, with everyone being able to edit the logs and notes communally.

Getting Started: So, after a couple short sessions just introducing characters and getting a feel for what it means to be able to span time and space in the blink of an eye, I put in motion a minor variation on the "Identity Is All" scenario. I changed a few locations and character names to better match the existing Corner and PCs.

Identity Is All, by David Trimboli, involves the PCs mentor being gone for a weekend, possibly as a test of how well they can handle themselves without supervision. In the midst of this weekend, an NPC they've never met before shows up at their Corner with amnesia.  The players get to fiddle around with trying to figure out the investigative options at their disposal, and if anything gets out of hand they can simply time-travel away from that weekend to ask the Mentor for help. As written, it sounds like your typical group of PCs should be able to handle it in one, maybe two sessions... but of course, things never go as easily as planned.

My players dove right in, and started back-tracking the amnesiac's movements to find out where he came from. They weren't content to call in back-up or let me swing in some Deus Ex Machina on a string. No, they wanted to investigate every possible nook and cranny of this plotline. Which is awesome. I had to reverse engineer the undefined backstory of the scenario, just so I could stay a half-step ahead of them.

The scenario as written only takes place in roughly the modern day, but the PCs ended up pursuing clues that took them from Cardiff in 2004 all the way down to New York City in 1928.  Things were going great, they were exploring the setting and doing some top-notch sleuthing. Their Mentor hadn't been seen in several sessions, and they were quickly exposing the guts of a major Narcissist plot that is only hinted at in the published adventure.

Then, without warning, an out-of-character disaster struck, and nearly killed the campaign.

Social Implosion: I won't go into the details here out of respect for those involved, but suddenly 3 of the 5 players were no longer talking to each other. As a result, for about 2 or 3 months of play, I was uncertain each week which, if any, of them would show up. They'd been really good friends (of mine, as well as of each other), and I was certain they'd work it out eventually, so I didn't want to aggravate the situation by choosing sides or kicking anyone out of my game.

In the meantime, though, the plot was threatening to stall out. Since I could never be certain who was going to show up, and the various PCs had such different skills available, getting the level of challenge balanced properly was tricky. Plus, if someone was actively pursuing a particular plot thread or task, and then failed to show up the next week, it tended to leave things up in the air.

Back On Track: Myself and the other 2 players carried on without them, eventually writing their characters out of the story in ways that were non-confrontational and easily reversible. Not insurmountable, but certainly quite tricky. They visited three or four different Corners, met a lot of NPCs, investigated shenanigans at the ISIS pulsed neutron source in Chilton, and attended a Magician's show put on by the Enemy.

As is only proper in a time-travel game, they see much of the villains plot afoot and aimed at them long before they inadvertently took the actions that triggered the villain to become a villain in the first place. Why does he have crooked legs and a cane? Because the PCs accidentally gave him permanent injuries on the day they met. Man, it's good to be a time-travel GM.

In the midst of it all, the major Villain got the upper hand, and managed to hypnotize at least one of the PCs. There's still some concern there's a post-hypnotic "time bomb" inside her. Tick. Tick.

The remaining PCs eventually resolved the major plot stemming from Identity Is All and it's aftermath, but never quite as completely as they would have liked. There were several threads left dangling, each tied inconveniently to one or another of the missing PCs. They wrapped them up as neatly as they could, and then went for an in-character vacation.

Off On Vacation: The adventure now switched to the tiny islands of the Palmyra Atoll in the 1990s. In a friendly Corner on these nearly unpopulated islands, the PCs kicked back and got some R&R... until mysterious things started happening. The new puzzle involved rogue nanites, curious Inheritors (think Alien Greys), and an unknown skinnydipper that might or might not be a Narcissist (she wasn't). The players pleasantly surprised me by hitting all the clues ahead of schedule, and solving the dilemma before I could unleash the ghosts or the giant crabs!

Span Two: The players had truly earned promotion to the second rank of spannerdom. Honestly, it would have been justified several months previous to when it happened, but we'd held off for a while not wanting to eclipse the missing players should they return. As it turns out, that was a good decision because the same week we decided to advance Declan and Casey to Span Two, I got an email from the guy who used to play Ronald. Things in his life had settled down a bit, and he was interested in returning to the game if there's still a slot open for him. No problem, it let me work back in some of those plot threads that had been left dangling before.

Meanwhile, Casey and Declan were given a little ceremony upon attaining Span Two. It was rife with symbolism and metaphor, and the I followed it up with a party that was attended by pretty much every NPC spanner they'd met. In the midst of it, someone pulled a nasty practical joke on the Corner. Since Casey is a bit of a prankster herself, they first had to ascertain that the joke wasn't her own Elder self screwing with them. Eventually they figured out which NPC was behind it all (the alien from back on Palmyra, though he tried framing the skinnydipper), but still don't understand his motives. Is it the signs of a deep cultural schism or misunderstanding, or do their own future selves offend him in some way? Due to the remoteness of when and where an Inheritor lives, they lack a good opportunity to question him, and they're not about to start a conflict with the "alien" race that inherits the post-singularity Earth.

There and Back Again: They decided instead to follow up on leads and threads left over from the plotlines that happened back around the out-of-character social implosion. This has lead them to Tibet in 1852, London in 1592, 1919 and 2010, and back to NYC in 1928 to wrap up some unfinished business. They're still Span Twos (and Ron's a One), so they're always hitching rides with higher-ranked NPCs, but these guys just don't let their theoretical limitations hold them down. One of them has a standing invite to both Ancient Egypt and a biolab in 2152.  They've been taking on plots that should be enough to keep Threes busy, and almost never flinching. We've had two major time combats, resulting in one narcissist being fragged out, and two of the PCs nearly following suit. Like their mentor, they had to pull themselves back up by their bootstraps from the status of being a borderline "Lost Cause". They narrowly avoided a TPK, and then back-to-back with that they narrowly avoided coming to blows with an ostensibly friendly corner that was holding a grudge against their mentor. They've had good luck at talking their way out of some pretty nasty jams.

And that's roughly where things are right now. The party is split, but has things well in control. Declan is in 1928 putting the final nails in a Narcissist's coffin, Casey is visiting a Physician's office in the 1980s to get her head checked out (tick tick),  and Ron is up in the year 2000 about to pursue a major lead about whatever happened to the missing other members (Grace and Mercy) of their corner.

A few hiccups and roller-coasters in the middle of it, but it's been a good year of gaming. I'm looking forward with much enthusiasm to the second year of the campaign.


Nick Lemarr said...

Hey man, I sent you a message on the Weird Worlds Forum but couldn't get ahold of you. I have a few ideas and still need help with that one mod. Thanks man.

r_b_bergstrom said...


Check your private messages and email. I attempted to send you a message via the system at the WW:RTIS forums.

Short version: If you send me your malfunctioning mod, I'll gladly help debug it.