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Tabletop RPGs Traveller

Deepnight Revelation campaign: half-formed thoughts and notes (no spoilers)

I stumbled across the epic Mongoose 2e Traveller campaign Deepnight Revelation [paid link] in an RPGnet thread about the campaign. It sounded amazing: a 20-year mission into unexplored space at the helm of one of the most powerful starships in the galaxy, with the players running the command crew.

Deepnight Revelation box set

So much of this is like catnip to me: The multi-year mission, 10 years out and 10 years back; the amazing name, which is both the campaign and the titular starship; the epic scope, which involves confronting an existential threat; the Star Trek-like conceit that the players are almost certainly in charge of the mission (though they don’t have to be, and the box set accounts for that in multiple places); and the subversion of the typical “you’re in debt up to your eyeballs and have a half-busted freighter, go make your way in the universe” Trav premise. I’ve also nursed a lifelong desire — thus far unfulfilled — to play at least one published mega-campaign, so there’s that.

What other folks did

I did some homework before buying the box set, Googling and looking for more info about the campaign. That turned up an excellent review on Reddit — which hides its spoilers so you can read it without encountering them — that covered pros, cons, and ways this campaign actually played out for the author’s group. A second thread also proved useful, especially in seeing some of the tweaks and behind-the-scenes work required for an undertaking this massive.

Taken together, these two threads convinced me that despite loathing game prep this prep-heavy campaign was worth picking up. It’s perhaps fairer to say that I loathe most game prep, and am just fine with games like tremulus where a couple hours of prep will cover an entire campaign. The work-to-payoff ratio makes sense there — and it seems like it could make sense here, too, with a campaign designed to take roughly 50-60 four-hour game sessions to complete needing a correspondingly larger one-off prep investment. (And, notably, some prep along the way as well.)

Railroading

I also loathe railroading, but buying into a campaign concept — “we’re journeying from point A to face the danger at point Z” — isn’t the same as railroading. I’ve looked at some tentpole published campaigns and felt like there was no way to avoid railroading the players, but this didn’t sound like one of those.

After a full skim of the Deepnight Revelation core box [paid link], I’ve concluded to my own satisfaction that that first impression was accurate. The endpoint will always be the same, but how the journey plays out matters.

Sometimes you want to make decisions that affect the fate of the entire crew and the future of their years-long mission, but sometimes you want to take the shuttle into the irradiated asteroid belt yourself and see what happens next (without torpedoing the campaign in the process…). I played a lengthy Ars Magica campaign with a huge pool of characters, and it was one of my all-time favorites; that approach is solid gold.

Shared tracking resources

Just a cursory skim of the box set makes it clear that some sort of multifaceted, group-accessible tracking solution would be needed for this campaign. Maybe that’s a Google Docs spreadsheet or two, or a giant whiteboard, or a small whiteboard and a wiki — and so on, you get the idea.

I love the idea of a whiteboard for the most important frequently-changing values — stuff like the Crew Effectiveness Index, which is the modifier for rolls made to resolve events at fairly high levels of abstraction (e.g., “How did the refueling mission go?”), and the available store of supplies.

CEI, CEIM, DEI, CFI, OMGWTFBBQ

I’m still digesting the box set’s mechanics for resolving the many large-scale and abstracted elements of the Deepnight Revelation‘s journey — something multiple folks on Reddit noted as needing extensive reworking in their groups — and so far they don’t look like a mess. But one, I’m not done reading yet, and two, they’ve lived and breathed and run the campaign, and I’m just noodling over it at my desk. So we shall see!

That’s what’s rattling around in my brain at the moment. Now I’m going to tuck back into the handbook and poke things a bit harder.

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Tabletop RPGs

Ars Magica after 18 sessions: what an amazing RPG

My Seattle group is coming up on a year of Ars Magica [paid link]┬áplay, using 5e — my first experience with Ars. We’ve played around 20 sessions (I’ve missed a couple, but I’ve been there for 18), covering about a year of in-game time, and I say without hyperbole that I will happily play this campaign until I totter into a nursing home if that’s an option.

Out of the roughly 130 RPGs I’ve played, Ars Magica is one of only two games that I currently rate a 10/10. Here’s why I love it so much.

Ars is above the crunch level I’d usually consider for a long-term game (purely a personal preference), but every bit of that crunch is put to good use — it’s not just there for the sake of it. The game mechanics tee things up to deliver meaningful, engaging play by taking full advantage of that crunch — and you don’t need all of it at any one time. The core mechanic is quite simple. The game design, by Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein-Hagen (the original designers), with David Chart at the helm of fifth edition, is brilliant.

It’s also a fascinating, unique beast in many different ways. It’s designed for troupe play: We have six players, and each of us created two characters for ourselves (a magus, who is central to the campaign but goes on fewer adventures than one might think, and a companion, a sort of “anything goes” character you typically wind up playing more often) and three grogs — minor characters — for the group. Every session, we divvy up characters differently.

Someone plays their magus; they’re in the spotlight. A couple folks play their companions. The others pick suitable grogs from the pool (whether they originally created them or not), and take on a supporting character role. And in the background, the other ~40 characters who live in and around our wizard tower keep the place running, just like a medieval manor house. It’s beautiful.

And then there’s the temporal scope, which is epic: Wizards can live for a really long time. You can pace play however you like, but it works well as a mix of seasonal and in-the-moment play. During seasonal play — which could be at the table or “offline,” between sessions — you raise skills, read magical tomes, add buildings to your covenant, and the like. That’s interspersed with adventures, typically one or two per year, where you undertake whatever the hell the wizards think is important.

And then — and then! — there’s the magic system, which mixes formulaic spells with spontaneous magic using a brilliant set of mechanics. It’s all built around combining a verb, like creo for creating something, with a noun, like aquam for water. You can look at any wizard’s stats in those verbs and nouns and have a pretty good idea of what they’re capable of — which is a LOT. I keep underestimating how good our novice magi are at doing all sorts of shit that would just wreck other RPGs. And the game supports just coming up with wild shit, plugging into the framework of the rules, and making it happen.

And it all has consequences! The characters exist in a web of responsibilities, intrigue, danger, obligation, relationships, power plays, and machinations that lends weight to everything you do at the table.

There’s so much to Ars, both in terms of the rulebook, which isn’t small, and in terms of the scope of play and the setting itself, that I really have no idea how to encapsulate it all in a blog post.

The short version is that Ars Magica [paid link] is a thing of beauty, and I love it.