Design Diary: Flying Pig Campaign 1

(Originally published on on 8/19/2009)

Let’s start out with the basics. If you’ve read this site at all, you know I’m a big fan of Joss Whedon’s Serenity universe and got to help make an RPG out of it last year. It took me a year after publication to start my own live campaign, but its finally rolling. It began with my annual “Ohio Game” where gaming friends from near and far gather for a day-long adventure. Don’t know if it was the draw of Serenity being the game at hand, but we had a record 15 players this year. Quite a lot to handle.

I’m going to start this diary discussing how I approached the Ohio Game and then where I went from there when we decided to continue their characters in a regular game. I organized the players into the crews of two ships: The Flying Pig, captained by Riley McAllister (female) and the Pied Piper, captained by Magnus Grimm (male). To start them off, the Pipers had lost their ship to unscrupulous salvageers and they had to go to the Pigs, hat in hand, to get their help recovering the Piper. Many people owed money and people came to collect on those debts. One person was fated to betray everyone else. Lots of people had history together within and between crews.

It began with a bar fight, lots of hard bargaining between the two captains, a gunfight as they tried to lift off Persephone, reaching the Salvageer outpost alive, and ended with them bluffing their way back on to their ship. All-in-all I was very pleased with how it came off, never having GM’d 15 players before. I don’t think anyone felt neglected for too long and I tried to have moments for everyone to shine.

Let’s break it down into how I prepared for the game.

Designing the Characters: A few of the players created their characters ahead of time, but most showed up eager to find out who they were. They meant that the majority of my prep time for the game was making their characters. Each one had to have the basics, certainly: attributes, skills, life points, appropriate equipment, name… The key part with Serenity is picking the Traits: those positive assets and negative complications which make a character interesting. Traits are often drawn on the character’s history and provide hooks for the player to role-play the character. When that role-playing gets them into trouble, they get a benefit in plot points. (ok, enough Serenity RPG 101).

I tried to have every character either have history with a few others or good reason to interact with them during the game. The best example were the two captains. I decided that the heart of the game would be that they used to be partners and had unadmitted love interest with each other. Riley ended up sleeping with another crew member and Magnus left the ship. That was two years ago and their relationship has been rocky to non-existent. This sets them both up for the moment when Grimm has to ask Riley to help him get his new ship back. (Credit due: I gave Riley and Magnus’ players the broad concept and they ran with it and created their own characters). Other interconnections were people in the same profession, people at odds with their views on the Alliance vs. the Independents, various mixtures of loyalty and greed, and everyone had at least one secret they weren’t eager for others to know about. The best one of those secrets became the seed for the on-going campaign.

So they had professions (stuff they are good at), traits (talents and foibles), and secrets. It made for a fairly good mix at the table with these issues coming up here and there around the metagaming level of problem solving. Really, with that done, I could have run the thing off-the-cuff, which I have done in the past, but I did a bit more prep after the characters were squared away.

The Tabletop: I put a lot of value in a few properly chosen props, well-painted figurines, and diagrams or maps that allow the players to visualize the situation. First, I made sure I had a copy of the Firefly deck plans sized for miniatures scale (from the Serenity RPG GM’s Screen). Then, I made sure I had a reasonable, painted figurine for each player character as well as some painted terrain for mood (All the PCs and couple samples of terrain). I found some excellent tokens to use for Plot Points (Qing Dynasty coin replicas). I dug out the costume I wore at GenCon 2005 while GMing Serenity’s debut con adventure (My gunbelt). And I had a few other props here and there (a plot-crucial missing engine part).

Running the Game: Even after spending almost a year helping playtest and write the Serenity RPG, I’d really run it “for real” few times. So there was a bit of rust to shake off while adapting to 15 players. Some of the techniques that worked for me were:

Group characters under the same initiative turn and have them work together to plan their moves so when I get to them, we resolve their actions quickly. This also helped when my attention was elsewhere, they could continue to plot and role-play.

Give key players extra ‘powers’ to keep things moving when I’m focused on the other table. For each team, I’d prepared an “event” that could happen to their ship and the Captain of the ship could run the event. I’d written up the flavor text and what rolls I would ask for at each step. For example, the Piper had a booby-trap on it courtesy of the Salvageers. The Event was detecting the problems (engines cut off), finding the issue, finding the trap, and disarming the trap. Either the clock was running because there were explosives attached or the Salvageers were coming fast and would recapture the ship if they didn’t get the trap disarmed. This didn’t come up in the game, but I was prepped for it to keep things moving at both tables.

Encourage sidebar Role-playing Interactions. When you’ve already laid the groundwork for character relationships, secrets, conflicts, and other events, all it takes is a quick sidebar to get good roleplayers off and running. I would then just stop back and ask how it was resolved. (Or they would get me again if it dissolved into a gunfight.

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