On a Red World Alone: Active & Reactive Worlds, and Keeping a Mature Campaign Alive

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Around the time the first year of ORWA was wrapping up, I wrote a bunch of tools for myself. Stuff that would help me run the game more easily, like tables of encounters, tables of locations locations, a timeline of big events, etc. By then the tone and content of the campaign were firmly established in my mind. Enough so that by using these tools, I’ve been able to run the game for a little over a year with remarkably little week-to-week prep work. A map here, an encounter there, simple stuff.

Now the game is over two years old. It doesn’t seem set to end anytime soon, but it has started to feel a bit stale. It’s time to evaluate, update, and rewrite my tools. One of my goals in this process is to make the world feel more active, rather than reactive.

At low levels, it’s easy to have an active world. The players are weak and poor, the world is dangerous, and they’ve got to do whatever they can to get by. That experience of being the underdog is a big part of why low levels are so popular, and why so many campaigns start to falter once the player characters are more well established.

When the party reaches mid-levels, there is novelty in being the ones directing the action. They’ve been living in the shadow of big scary monsters for so long, it’s edifying to be a bit of a monster themselves. Plus, you can never be so high level that a savvy referee can’t scare you.

But as the players reach higher levels, the world gets less and less scary, and the novelty of being scary themselves starts to wear off. If a level 15 characters wants to do something, there’s not much that can stop them. The world bends to their will and, as a consequence, the world reacts to the players, rather than the players reacting to the world.

Part of the solution is a shallower power scale, which is what I’m already doing with Fuck the King of Space. But it’s too late to change ORWA in such a fundamental way, even if I wanted to.

Another part of the solution is the “always a bigger fish” school of thought. Your party may be level 15, but the level 30 wizard who lives up on the hill is not impressed. This is a valid tactic, and I employ it myself, but alone it’s insufficient. This isn’t just about creating a challenge for the players. That’s easy. This is about making the world feel alive, the way it did when any mook the party met on the street could potentially be a real danger to them.

And to be clear, this isn’t about fixing something that is broken, it’s about adapting to an altered circumstance. There’s a lot of potential fun in having the players be hyper-capable relative to the rest of the world, and they’ve earned the chance to explore that. We just need to find some new ways for the world to push back. Before each new adventure, roll a d6 on the table below, and use the result to develop a suitable event. Once you’ve determined your event you should also deduce some reasonable consequence that might be avoided by player intervention.

Exactly what the consequence will be should usually follow pretty obviously from the details of the event. For example, if a PC’s favorite hireling has been kidnapped, failing to rescue said hireling will result in them being hurt or killed. The important thing is that the consequence exists, and will definitely occur without player intervention.

Players are free to attempt to resolve, or to ignore these events as they see fit. Many will not be quite so pressing as a kidnapped hireling. Likewise, events will vary in terms of the time investment they require to resolve. Some may be sessions-long adventures, while others might be small detours that only take part of a single session, and still others may require no time at all. Perhaps the players can resolve some events merely by throwing part of their vast fortunes at it.

In a way, it doesn’t matter how much of an impact the events have on gameplay. The important thing is that they percieve the world as being less passive, less predictable, less under their control.

Roll 1d6

1. An Agent Becomes Active

I’ve discussed before how I record interesting NPCs my players meet onto a table; and that anytime they roll a 7 while determining the result of an encounter, they bump in to one of these “Recurring Characters.” It’s one of my better ideas. But, after playing with it for 18 months, I’ve got too many characters, and not enough 7s to go around.

From here on, recurring characters will be divided into two lists. The first, “Encounter Characters” will be treated the same as they always have been. When the players roll a 7, I’ll randomly determine one of these for them to bump into while out and about in the world.

More ambitious characters, on the other hand, will be added to the list of Agents. These are the NPCs with distinct long-term goals. People who want to take vengeance on the party, or fellow adventurers who view the party as friends. In other words: people who might actively seek the party out at some point in the future.

Anytime this result is rolled, the referee should randomly select one of the game’s active Agents. The time has come for the PCs to become relevant in that agent’s plans.

2. A Questgiver has Work for the PCs

Anyone can offer the players a quest. In most games, though, there are one or two NPCs who make a regular habit of it. It’s all-around helpful for everyone when the players attach themselves to someone who can reliably give them paying work. It gives the referee a simple way of introducing adventures, and it gives the party a simple way of getting paid.

As the game develops, questgivers usually become less relevant. But it never hurts to keep them around, so they can toss a little straightforward adventuring in the player’s direction now and again.

If your players are so inclined, this result could also include petitioners. People who have heard of the party’s mighty deeds, and have come to plead for aid.

3. Conspiracy Event

Very recently, I wrote about how every game I run has conspiracies going on in the background. Secret goals pursued by hidden persons, which the players may or may not uncover before the conspiracy reaches its ultimate culmination.

When this is rolled, the referee should randomly determine one of game’s conspiracies (assuming there are more than one). Something happens that is relevant both to it, and to the players. Perhaps the plot takes a big step forward, with some public consequence that seems simple at first, but might reveal more upon careful investigation. Alternately, some small corner of the conspiracy could be uncovered, becoming public knowledge.

It is less important for these to have a direct consequence, since they are building towards a large consequence later down the line.

4. Something Happens to a Player’s Resources

Randomly determine a player. No doubt, that player has accrued some resources over time: they have a hireling, a personal citadel, a magic laboratory, a vault of treasures, and a sterling reputation.

When this is rolled, the player’s friends are assaulted, their possessions burgled, their fortresses attacked, or their good names slandered. Some resource of theirs is diminished.

Be very cautious in how this particular result is applied. It is not interesting for players to describe in detail the many security precautions they take to avoid being robbed. It is best, I think, to stick to attacking resources which might reasonably be outside the player’s ability to control.

“All your gold is stolen from your private vault!” is going to cause a lot of frustration, and probably lead the players to bore you with endless descriptions of the many traps and spells they use to protect their coin.

“One of your servants was mugged, and the entire month’s food budget stolen!” is a much more reasonable option.


5. Something Happens with a Player’s Goals

Randomly determine a player. Most likely, that player has expressed some kind of personal goal they want their character to pursue. A religion they want to discredit, a territory they want to establish, a device they want to build, etc.

Pick one thing that you know the player wants, then flip a coin. There is a 50/50 chance that this event is a setback, or an opportunity.

Setbacks are a threat to the player’s ability to accomplish their goal. If they want to discredit a religion, perhaps a miracle occurs which draws in hordes of new converts. If they want to establish a territory, perhaps the land they were looking at is seized by someone else. If they want to build a device, perhaps the government bans such devices.

Opportunities  are a chance for the player to advance their goal more rapidly than they would normally be able. Using the same examples as above, this might be a religious sex scandal, a group of settlers asking the PC to help them find a new home, or some useful materials falling off the back of a truck.

6. World Event

World events are not directly related the the players. However, their results have enough impact on the environment that the players should be interested none the less. When a world event occurs, roll on the following table:

  1. A natural disaster strikes. Randomly determine, or choose a disaster as appropriate: Fire, Earthquake, Tornado, Flood, Landslide, Sinkhole, Volcano, Blizzard, Tsunami, Hurricane, Meteor.
  2. A famine or drought begins. Food becomes very scarce, and people begin to starve. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled.
  3. A plague breaks out, the particulars of which are left to the referee. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled.
  4. A major figure in the Dome, such as a faction leader, is assassinated.
  5. War breaks out between a faction, and one of its neighbors. Each month until an alleviation is rolled, both sides roll a d6. Whichever side rolls higher took some of their neighbor’s territory, commensurate with the difference in the size of the rolls. (So if a 1 and a 6 are rolled, the gains would be large. If a 1 and a 2 are rolled, the gains would be small).
  6. An insurrection erupts, making a territory unstable, and threatening to overthrow the existing power structure. Each haven turn, roll a d6. The condition persists until a 1 is rolled. If it is not rolled within 7 months, the insurrection will be successful.
  7. Two factions announce an alliance with one another.
  8. News of a major scandal breaks.
  9. A major religious event occurs for a randomly determined religion.
  10. A new faction emerges, and carves out a small space for itself on the map. It may be a group the players have interacted with before, something entirely new, or even something which has technically existed for awhile but which was secret up until now.
  11. A major discovery is made, and becomes widely known: perhaps a new technology is developed, perhaps a new race is encountered.
  12. A prophecy begins making its way around around. Nobody is quite sure how to interpret it, but everyone is certain that it’s important.

The Haven Turn

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of overlap between the system outlined above, and Haven Turn complications. Most notably, the list of World Events are literally copy/pasted from that post, and edited to reflect some differences in the rules.

Complications have become my favorite part of the game, and I want to bring them more to the fore. In my game, this system will replace the standard Haven Turn encounter check. But even if you don’t use the Haven Turn system, I think this method could be helpful to others running high level games.

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