From Crunchy and Complex to Lean and Simple: a Campaign Development Experiment

I’m excitedly planning my first Powered by the Apocalypse game – a frightful treat for occasional meatspace gamers tomorrow using Monster of the Week.

Thing is, my GM headspace is mostly occupied with the Unknown Armies campaign I’m currently running on alternate Mondays. There’s quite a lot going on in that campaign – several plotlines interweaving, at different stages of progress, with varying scope of impact, and that could go in many directions depending on acts or omissions by the player characters.

That complexity is not by prior design. I’ve resisted working everything out in advance. The storylines have evolved entirely and organically from the collaborative setup process with the players and early game sessions. Making sense of what they have introduced and pulling it together into something coherent has been where most of my effort has been spent.

But we’re halfway through the available sessions and I’m at the stage where I need to pull strands together, reveal some key unknowns and start bringing things to a head.

  • I want to solidify details of some of the main emerging antagonists, not least to ensure I keep presenting them as consistent rounded characters to the group.
  • I also want to simplify the campaign, without sacrificing too much of the rich complexity that feeds its essence as an occult conspiracy. There’s enough scope for it to spin out to a new series of sessions, but I think it can reach a satisfying conclusion in the remaining sessions.
  • I’ve been working on tighter scene framing since the first episode, but the game also needs some tighter episode framing as we enter the closing stages.
  • There needs to be more immediate perilous action (without becomng gonzo).
  • It could generally benefit from turning up the weird (though that’s been happening to a degree anyway, based on recent events).

So, what’s this got to do with my Halloween game?

Well, I’m taking a couple of the storylines in the Unknown Armies game and spinning them out into a mini-arc for Monster of the Week.  Mechanically they are simply not compatible, but they’re both fairly structured systems in their own way, and very player-driven. But that’s just fine – it’s the narrative value that I want to explore. And actually, the process of adapting the story elements – even before it’s played out – is helping in two very specific ways that I can see will benefit the Unknown Armies campaign:

  1. clarifying the antagonist role
  2. testing out what could be narratively interesting

Let me explain.

As well as powers, Monster of the Week makes you clearly define weaknesses for your monsters, which are the only way to get rid of them properly. While I had a good sense of their capabllities, I had neglected their vulnerabilities. Translating to Unknown Armies, the antagonists aren’t so much invincible without explicit weaknesses, but defining them can give a clear path for the player characters to take that goes beyond simply hitting them hard. As the GM, it gives me a structured hook, something useful to dangle in front of the characters or to reveal to them that can help them make progress. And that can tie directly into the objective mechanic that should push forward the cabal agenda.

Talking of agendas, each threat also has a defined motivation. I know what my antagonists are trying to achieve in the larger campaign, but it’s useful to think about them in the simple structured terms that Monster of the Week offers. For one thing, it helps me cut through the complex mesh of storylines and hopefully keep my antagonists much more focussed on both realising their obsessions, and potentially being more direct about using or discarding the cabal in order to do that.

The same goes for other kinds of threats. There’s a large cast of non-player characters, so it’s useful to think of them in terms of their significance as minions (directly supporting the monster/antagonist) or bystanders (independently obstructive or potentially helpful characters). As each type also has a clearly expressed motivation, I’m finding it much easier to decide what role they can play in supporting or thwarting the hunter/cabal plans.

(Monster of the Week defines locations as threats too. There are a handful of key places in the campaign, none of which I am entirely happy with as a suitable showdown place. I need to look more closely at how this might translate though.)

Back to the main antagonists, prepping for Monster of the Week is also forcing me to get tighter with their countdowns – the string of events that happen if the player characters do nothing. While I already have a good idea of those for most of the antagonist parties, I hadn’t got very satisfying ways to pull them out of the background so the characters could get a sense of what was unfolding. I really like that there’s a story happening that will unravel even if the player characters do nothing. It makes the campaign world feel more alive, and I know that there’ll be consequences for the group if they do nothing.

But it becomes a problem when we are stuck at the point of things happening around the characters that just feel random. Tightening the countdowns for those monsters is helping me explore how those incidents can more naturally cross the paths of the characters.

In the last Unknown Armies session, as we reached the halfway point of the campaign, the complexity of the situation certainly started to become clearer for the players. I want to press on with peeling away the layers of the mystery and revealing more of the connections, not just between the different factions, but also with the characters (who are now inexorably tied to what’s going on). It’ll help make sense of what has been going on, and – more importantly – give the players two things:

  1. decisions to make:  As the characters have become more embroiled, there is a greater imperative for them to take a stance and to act than there was at the start of the campaign. They’re becoming more aware of the consequences for doing or not doing things, rather than things just seeming to happen to them or in their environment. In early sessions there was definitely an issue around why the characters should care about some of the elements in play. Now, they can’t so easily sit on the fence or ignore what’s happening. They’re no longer innocent bystanders, but have chosen to become complicit agents.
  2. options to take: the characters have their own agendas, and as the web of intrigue unfolds before them, they will be presented with options through the monsters/antagonists that can help them pursue those more effectively. They will still have the threats presented to them to deal with (and they are certainly capable to do so), but they’ll have greater agency to choose how and whether to address them, or focus on their own obejctives (or attempt to do some combination of both).

While the antagonists give the characters problems and some decisions to make, they also afford them options to face challenges and pursue goals. Of course, being Unknown Armies, exercising any of those options isn’t without its own issues.  In fact, we’ve already started to deal with some consequences of the characters’ earlier actions. Some of that fallout has become quite manifest. Indeed, the first threat in tomorrow’s Monster of the Week game has spawned directly as a result what the characters did in the first episode of the Unknown Armies campaign.

Currently available on a Halloween special at DrivethruRPG.[/caption]As an experiment, I’m enjoying thinking about the crunchy Unknown Armies campaign through a leaner game like Monster of the Week:

  • I’m getting to tighten up my antagonists, and iron out some creases with how they’ve been conceived.
  • I get to play with some vignettes that help flesh them out and maybe throw in some creative incidents to absorb back into the original game.
  • I can explore some options for how they are presented to player characters.

To be clear though, I’m not migrating the Unknown Armies cabal characters to the game for a new set of players to run. Instead, they’ll appear as threats to a new group of hunters in the Monsters of the Week game, who may yet end up appearing back in the Unknown Armies game.

Being able to test some of these things to discover what’s narratively interesting here is not about what’s happening to the monsters/antagonists. It’s all about how it relates to what the characters are doing, and how it can be used to shine a light on their story, creating opportunities and obstacles that naturally fall in their path. That applies equally to both games. And whatever is (or isn’t) learnt to take back to the Unknown Armies campaign, the Monster of the Week game as an adventure in its own right. With that in mind, I best get back to prepping that for my unsuspecting band of hunters.

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