Framework for setting up a campaign

edited February 12 in Play Advice
I’m starting a new campaign soon as a GM. We’ve decided to play Legend of the Five Rings using the new L5R 5ed from FFG. The main reason behind choosing this setting are samurai drama, bushido and tough moral choices. My goal is to make it as much “story game” as possible instead of a standard railroady adventure. The system is crunchy and comes from more traditional game design, but I think it should support that model of play after few minor adjustments. The setting is fun, but I’m worried it might be a problem - it’s extremely detailed and specific - my gut tells me it might be stopping our creativity instead of helping it.

The two last games I’ve run were Blades in the Dark and Apocalypse World. Both come with a detailed model of play and a framework for setting expectations. In my opinion this was one of the main reasons why both campaigns were successful. Everyone knew what’s going on and where are we heading. Unfortunately L5R doesn’t have anything like that as it supports many different ways of playing. I’ve looked into several published adventures to get a feel of what’s going on. Unfortunately most of them are investigations/intrigues and that’s not something I want to explore. I want to create a pitch for my players so we can talk it out during session 0 and figure out where do we start.

I’m currently looking for a detailed and working step-by-step framework what to do. Right now I was thinking to use either https://fate-srd.com/fate-core/game-creation or https://bankuei.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/flag-framing-1-setting-up-a-campaign/. What do you think? How would you approach it? Are there any better options?

Comments

  • Have you read Sorcerer? I'm not suggesting to switch to those rules, but rather that it contains good advice for getting to a game where players are facing moral choices that interest them. (There's not much stopping you from porting the setting of LFR into Sorcerer, though, but the Sorcerer RPG has a very steep learning curve for GM and player.)

    The essence of it is to have each player establish their own Kicker (the thing that thrusts their PC into a real story that matters), then use Bob and Weave techniques to push the characters together, even at each other, and throw Bangs (things they can't ignore, that test a PC's resolve) when things get too quiet.
  • Adam's advice is good. I think doing this kind of thing with a "crunchy, traditional system" can be tricky, but not impossible.

    I would look to bring the themes I'm most interested in to the table. What about the setting/premise excites me and would be fun to explore?

    Then I'd look for the players to do the same.

    For instance, maybe you're excited to explore ideas of samurai honour, and how they conflict with the monarchy. Does saying that excite a player, who immediately jumps in with, "Ooh, what if a young noble hated his family, and wanted to become a samurai?"

    Getting a sense of what people are excited about, and why, is key here, I think. When you find that you're excited about the same things, that's when the magic starts to happen.
  • edited February 13
    I think you can't really avoid having somebody take a stance on what the game is about. It's either gotta be the game designer (who in this case has apparently punted the task) or the GM, or you can do the trad thing where the group sort of shuffles around and people do some half-formed initiatives that don't go anywhere because the others ignore them.

    Applying this to your case, yeah - you'll probably want to figure out what your campaign is going to be about. I understand that L5R is basically a setting plus some resolution rules, so what is it that you want to do with it?

    If the answer is basically story game something something Sorcerer something something protagonism-in-a-scenario, then the simplest thing to do is to just rip the structural tools from whatever - Sorcerer is an excellent choice - and run with that, just as Adam says. You could also do The Shadow of Yesterday, Dust Devils or even The Mountain Witch - any game that actually does the kind of thing you want to do, and that won't mind having its resolution system and setting replaced with L5R should do.

    There's a lot of width to the "what are we doing" question, though, even if you've managed to pinpoint it to a storygamey ballpark of some sort, so while it's not difficult to throw in some structural model of play, it's a very worthwhile question to think about which one you're going to use, exactly. It's not that you can mix and match this stuff freely - the actual structural model of a game is a very coherent matter - but there are so many ways you could go about things that it pays to stop for a moment and think.

    I suppose I'm not fundamentally convinced that there actually is any game going on in a meaningful way until the actual subject matter and its structuration has been chosen. The setting, character spec and resolution stuff you have in L5R is just... stuff. It'll be a rather different game depending on whether you want to set up the players with characters so they can kill each other in dramatic sword duels, or if you want to Lord of the Rings (ha ha), or what.
    baldwin said:

    The main reason behind choosing this setting are samurai drama, bushido and tough moral choices.

    There's one campaign structure that I might suggest here specifically. It's one of the default story game arrangements, often called "blood opera", but we might just as well call it "the wuxia game". The central conceit is that we want to set up every player with their own interesting characters who are embedded in a wide overall scenario. The character struggle against the various difficulties in the scenario, but they also meet up with each other and may well come to blows.

    (There are a lot of games that operate fundamentally on the blood opera structure - it's the second-most common arrangement after a party-based game. You could just rip the campaign planning stuff from one of those.)

    The reason I recommend the blood opera format is that the themes you mention as interesting in L5R have plenty of opportunity to be showcased if you set up the entire campaign with the premise that the player characters will be dueling each other in due time, just as soon as you figure out how their passions come into conflict with each other. When those climatic duels do come up, you get to use the L5R resolution rules for (I assume) exciting swordfights over well-prepared dramatic issues. The maneuvering around the circumstances of the deadly duels will provide plenty of opportunity for drama, bushido and morality.

    A blood opera can run rather quickly, there are many games that condense it into 2-3 sessions of play. You can pace it for a mid-length campaign too, though, which might be wise in this case. It's mainly to do with how much you'd like to foreshadow the final showdown, and how much you twist the plot to delay the ultimate crossing of the swords.

    All that being said, here's a handy checksheet for how to set up and play the basic blood opera game:

    1) Create some characters with the group. The characters need not be coordinated against each other, but you might wish to set up a central plot conceit or theme around which every player does their own take. "Everybody lives in the court of NPC X for some reason", for example. Don't forget to give each individual character the standard dramatic outlay - an interesting plot position, dramatic convictions, unique backgrounds, interesting relationships and whatever else.
    2) Once the characters exist, combine and involve their dramatic outlays with your GM scenario stakes, whatever they are. Let's say that somebody is building the Death Star or something like that, and the implications of it either failing or succeeding are going to be terrible. Whatever it is, you think up weaving material - reasons for why the individual concerns of the PCs ultimately all run up to your stakes. If a PC is passionate about cooking, then it has to be the case that cooking is terribly important to the Death Star matter in some way. This process probably produces relationship maps and that sort of stuff, but most importantly it provides you with ideas for actual play material to be used in the game.
    3) Fluff your material up with L5R lore. After all, you're playing in a detailed and flavourful setting, so presumably you want to make use of that stuff. If there's a PC interested in cooking, figure out which of the L5R clans (or whatever they have, I'm not really familiar with the game) is into that and showcase them in your prep.
    4) For individual sessions of play prep bangs rather than plot - an agenda sheet rather than a stage play. Prep one session at a time.
    5) In play you'll want to take turns with the various characters, giving each of them time to pursue their goals, learn stuff about the scenario, and confront choices they have to make about the overall situation. You put player characters into scenes with each other whenever there's an opportunity, of course.
    6) When deciding how the overall situation develops, you focus on dramatic coordination: make story development choices that bring the PCs together and force them to choose whether to support or oppose each other. Your goal is to drive each individual PC into risking their lives for their beliefs, and if it's due to another PC standing in their way, so much the better.
    7) As the campaign progresses you reveal more about the overall situation to the PCs, and they are therefore forced to reevaluate their positions on various things. ("The queen is a vampire! Am I still loyal to her?") When you have revealed everything you have, whatever positions the PCs ultimately choose, you play the implications of those positions out. Should probably lead to some climatic conflicts between PCs and NPCs and whatnot. Once that's done, the scenario's played out.
    8) If you want to play more, set up another scenario with the same characters.

    I don't see why that wouldn't work with L5R; it basically works with any rpg that doesn't actively get in the way. This generic structure isn't without its weaknesses - for instance, weak players often require extra support - but even a game that has not in-built structural support can be successfully managed if you remember what you're doing as you GM it.
  • One thing I like to do is to create a pregnant but open-ended tense situation/scenario. (Or, alternatively, have the players suggest one; but that depends on you knowing that your players are capable of doing this within the constraints and timeframe of whatever you're doing. Some people have played a single session of a collaborative storytelling RPG to set up their long-term campaign, for example.)

    Try to make sure your scenario is focused on a specific time and place and some srong, immediate concerns. Ideally, they are also thematically interesting to you (and the players). Have the players make characters which intentionally interface with the situation and its themes as strongly as possible. No "my guy is an adventurer looking for work"; instead, make sure each character is tightly bound to the material in the scenario. (If the scenario involves a kidnapping, for example, the characters could be an assassin hired to carry out the kidnapping, the kidnapped victim, the brother of the kidnapped victim, and the person who needs the victim for their purposes, say. Given a more interested and detailed scenario, of course, you can get better character ideas.)

    Borrowing the plot from a movie or novel and presenting it for the players to "mess around with" can be fun in this context, especially if you disguise it somehow.

    You could also borrow the game generation procedures from your favourite collaborative storytelling game. Tales of Entropy has you create characters as nemeses of each other, an effective technique. Fiasco uses a playset to determine relationships between the characters before you even create them, which might inspire some novel ideas. (I made a custom Fiasco playset to play Monsterhearts, for instance, and have had great success with it.)
  • baldwin said:

    I’m starting a new campaign soon as a GM. We’ve decided to play Legend of the Five Rings using the new L5R 5ed from FFG. The main reason behind choosing this setting are samurai drama, bushido and tough moral choices. My goal is to make it as much “story game” as possible instead of a standard railroady adventure. The system is crunchy and comes from more traditional game design, but I think it should support that model of play after few minor adjustments. The setting is fun, but I’m worried it might be a problem - it’s extremely detailed and specific - my gut tells me it might be stopping our creativity instead of helping it.

    I would say give yourself permission to deviate from the setting. Take the material in the book as suggestion rather than fact. Is everyone at the table as familiar with the setting or are there one or two people who know it best?
  • I think in big 90's-style games like L5R or Vampire the Masquerade, if you want to really explore a theme as GM, the way to do it is by aggressively setting the frame -- specifically, the situation and the dominant clan in the area. Then the players will make characters in light of that frame and they'll end up addressing that theme without you having to push it on them. Also, this makes the gigantic kitchen-sink nature of the setting and rules much more manageable. It can also be a way to change some of the basic assumptions of the setting a little to suit your taste.

    For example, in L5R you could pitch a game focused on the Crab clan and their struggles to defend the wall against an infinity of monsters, and pick a situation which plays up the themes of divided loyalties --the local Crab leaders must choose between defending the wall and taking part in a power struggle which could harm their interests (to borrow from Game of Thrones). Then, even if one of your players insists on making a sneaky ninja (there's always one), the duty vs. self-interest conflict is baked right into the setting and they're bound to take a side.
  • I would highly recommend watching the film Killer Clans.
  • I finally had some time to reply to all your posts and also I have a couple news. In the meantime I've re-read Story Now, TsoY/Solar System and GM section from the older L5R version to see what are my options.
    Adam_Dray said:

    Have you read Sorcerer?

    Yep :). I think I may borrow the idea of a Kicker, but we'll see if it's needed. After talking with my group they want to try the 5th edition of L5R first and then, if that doesn't work, we'll think about switching to a different system.


    I would say give yourself permission to deviate from the setting. Take the material in the book as suggestion rather than fact. Is everyone at the table as familiar with the setting or are there one or two people who know it best?

    No experience except one guy (who is also into sim play, but he agreed to focus on narrativism more).
    DannyK said:

    I think in big 90's-style games like L5R or Vampire the Masquerade, if you want to really explore a theme as GM, the way to do it is by aggressively setting the frame -- specifically, the situation and the dominant clan in the area. Then the players will make characters in light of that frame and they'll end up addressing that theme without you having to push it on them. Also, this makes the gigantic kitchen-sink nature of the setting and rules much more manageable. It can also be a way to change some of the basic assumptions of the setting a little to suit your taste.

    The more time I spent reading on the setting the more I was concerned because it's extremely detailed (and has over 20 years of history).

    I think you can't really avoid having somebody take a stance on what the game is about. It's either gotta be the game designer (who in this case has apparently punted the task) or the GM, or you can do the trad thing where the group sort of shuffles around and people do some half-formed initiatives that don't go anywhere because the others ignore them.

    This is the same my gut tells me. I really like the idea of "Blood Opera" game style - I think it might be exactly what I need. It's funny I've never heard about that style. I'll definitely use your outline - I think it may be exactly what I need, but I may have to do some changes :).

    I've started asking my players for their character preferences and I told them what part of setting I want to explore.

    One of the key concepts is Bushido, so I think I want to summarise the Premise with "will characters stay true to the Bushido even if there will be easier options to solve their problems?".

    I've asked them how they want to organise the characters and they told me they like to have a common goal, but they also want to pursue their own side-plots. This may be a problem for the "blood opera" style, but I think when things start conflicting with their duties and passions it should go into it.

    My main idea so far is to give them one big problem to solve (which will also mark the end of the campaign) and a sub-plot which connect to the main problem somehow. Subplots will be taken from their flags and I'll make sure they fit the main plot.

    As for fluff and details - I've decided I want to focus on a conflict between the Lion and the Crane Clan. Initially I wanted to say something like: "There is a city which was captured by the Crane Clan. You have to take it back for the glory of the Lion Clan", but this might be too big of a task for them.

    The alternative is to say "there is a kinda-neutral-minor-clan-which-I've-invented-myself nearby and their support would help us to win the war. You have to get their support - you are free to do it in however you like - cooking/diplomacy/military approaches are fine". I think this would be a good starting point for the whole campaign and I can fit their motivations/relationships/backgrounds in there easily. We can also add a time pressure - the Crane Clan is winning, so without that support the Lion Clan will lose. This should be my "DeathStar campaign stakes".

    I didn't get much about the characters yet, only a couple informations. I can write it down here, but I'm not sure how important it is to this example.

    Will that work?
  • The second idea is not bad! Crane clan and Lion clan are both very concerned with honor but Crane is also the artsy clan and Lion are the military geniuses. So you can really make the setting elements work for you by playing up the similarities and differences between the clans using NPC's and the nature of the invented minor clan.

    One thing that occurs to me with the super-detailed setting is that a lot of the background comes from the fact that L5R was a trading card game, so each of the clans needed a very distinct style and backstory to support its particular card strategy. All that setting fluff then flowed into the RPG. I think the same kind of thing happened with Vampire the Masquerade.
  • Yes, that's totally the secret backstory of Vampire: the Masquerade. Also, the reason Dungeons & Dragons has dragons is that they needed something showy for the big fight at the end of the movie; the idea just sort of slipped into the tabletop rpg spinoff afterwards.
  • I had real fun running a game where everyone was in the same clan.

    Maybe offer a different kind of campaign concept for each clan and one player can be the odd-one-out/fish-out-of-water.

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