Designing a Fading Suns Campaign

Leviathan of Maddoc
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Joined: Fri Nov 18, 2016 1:59 pm

Designing a Fading Suns Campaign

Postby Leviathan of Maddoc » Sun Dec 24, 2017 3:37 pm

I've been watching a lot of YouTube videos about how to design a game as a game master. Not long ago I ran a Fading Suns campaign that my players loved that was very satisfying for me as a GM. I'd like to share a bit about how I designed that campaign for folks who are curious or may be struggling with campaign design. I want to disclaim that this isn't the right way or the one true way to create a campaign, it's just the process I used for my group from beginning to end. If you like these ideas use them. If you have better ideas, share them in the comments.

Game Style
Not always step one, but early on in the design of a campaign, I try to make defining decisions about what kind of story this will be by defining it's tone, whether I'm running a comedy romp or a political mystery, or an action thriller. I define scope. I decide if I'm going to run a three-act short story or a four chapter epic, or an open ended campaign. I decide how much autonomy I'm going to give my players, if they're going to be run through the story on rails or if they're going to be allowed to set the pace of the story and explore the world randomly. I had some scenes in my mind that were going to be thick on action so I decided on a story with more action but I also wanted some moments in the game with some emotional impact, big losses, heroic saves, ominous discoveries, so I sort of penciled in that there would have to be some mystery aspects of the game to support those. I also wanted to make an open game world. I wanted to story to go on around the players but give them only limited guidance in how they'll interact with it. A lot of our previous Fading Suns games had followed this design and where it worked it was a lot of fun. I knew that part of the problem of this style of play was that players can miss where the plot is when you're not pointing them at it and shoving so I knew I would have to make clear markers of what problems were happening and how the players could interact. I decided I would structure the game as a timeline of events that would either draw players attention to problems going on in the world or signal that events had taken a turn and things were changing and I would allow players to react to what was going on around them organically. This meant that things happening in the game would have to be built with long-run ups to their climax that had visible clues of what's going on.

For a long time I've thought of stories I want to tell in the lens of a theme, an idea that is explored through the telling of the story. This isn't the key to the puzzle of a game but something that ties gives the different scenes of your game a sense of unity so they feel less like adventure-of-the-week and more like the arc of a story. Theme is something that when you're building the game you keep asking yourself “How does this relate to how I want my players to feel or experience” as you design encounters or plot points. Before I started the game we had just run a series of dark gritty Fading Suns games. For Cadiz Redeption the theme I chose was “hope”. I wanted to explore what was important about hope, what happens when it is lost. I ended up creating some plots that dealt with addiction to hope, weaponizing hope, and the distinction between Hope and Faith.
One of the unique aspects of the design of this game was that I gave each of the major NPCs something they hoped for, weather it was domination of the entirety of the valley or just the hope of having something worthwhile to look back on when they're older. Even large factions had a hope attribute. I wanted there to be a sense in the game that just like the PCs all of the NPCs had things they were holding on to or fighting for because of emotional investment.

For me the settling of a game is like a giant NPC, it shapes a lot of the feeling of the game and it in many ways becomes an adversary that the PCs have to overcome weather they are struggling with the geography or social restrictions, or the literal geography. We had had a lot of fun with Decados culture in the past and I wanted to capture that nostalgia so I narrowed the setting down to a Decados Planet. Here I also begin to think about scale. The setting we start with isn't always where we end but I want to have an idea of where the game will go so that I'm not surprised and I have an idea of how much detail we'll be needed in any given area. With the theme of “Hope” I knew that demonstrating hope would require the players to continue to interact with the same NPCs so they could see how things changed in their lives. I decided to scale the setting to the realm of a Decados Count with over a dozen small fiefdoms and one-or-two cities. I knew I'd have to quash characters who's function was to travel like starship crew or questing knights and as I introduced characters to the setting they would have to be given motivations that kept them anchored to the County.
I also need to design a setting that would give me the palate of available scenes to illustrate the theme. It doesn't have to be a theme park designed around the theme I want to use but I don't want a settling that distracts overly from the ideas I want to explore or conflicts with the style of adventure I want or even just a setting where it's difficult to introduce aspects of the theme. For my game I took a few days and thought about how I would illustrate hope in the game, how people's desires were denied or deferred and what made them hold onto the hope of things getting better. Already thinking about Decados worlds I constructed vignettes in my mind or on paper of things I wanted to show my players, a noble who had lost his daughter in the war and was spiraling out of control without a child to invest himself in, a Hawkwood tea shop that is constantly vandalized and derided but who stubbornly refuse to close because they hope they will make a real impact on relations between their houses, a minor house destined to slowly lose land and power to House Decados who maintains their nobility and a powerful noble who is struggling with an addiction or curse that they will lose to. These little sketches later became major NPCs and central points to the plot in some cases.
Once I have a general sense of the kind of setting I want I search the game world for a place like it. Fading Suns is a rare gem for this approach as whatever kind of crazy campaign you imagine there's pretty a corner of the Known Worlds to set it on. I read through descriptions of Decados Worlds and finally found the Megopoli of Cadiz. Here was this massive undertaking with the hope of bringing humanity forward as a peer to the demi-god like Vau and when it failed that hope died and these huge sprawling partially constructed cities were the corpse of that death. It was literally a part of the theme with hope built into it's description. I didn't want the game set in cosmopolitan, high-tech Elibyrge because that Space port might let players hop of planet without warning and easy access to technology didn't seem to fit this world I wanted to building. If you have “magic” you can just solve problems and hope becomes less relevant. I felt like my game had to go deeper into the wilderness. I found a little strip of green between the big swaths of dead maxcrete megacities and as I thought about why this space between a mountain range and a huge straight had no cityscape I started to define the setting.
I was going to run the game in a rural agricultural region, the sort of place that can produce food on the scale that makes up for what the tiny gardens carved out of the megopoli can't do. It would be rural and wild because it felt like a good place for mysteries to be uncovered and it would have a lot of problems because of imbalance of power because people who can't fix what's wrong strongly value hope. Being close to the Hironem reservation, there would be many Hironem serfs and impoverished freemen that struggled with hope. It would be a part of Decados space where many prominent nobles were casualties in the war and now B-team nobles were managing affairs and their mistakes were causing distress to people. It would be a County with an evil Count, then as I pondered the horrible stereotype of evil Decados Count and I was inspired to have the Decados Count of the region be a child of a very capable Decados Count who is ill-prepared to manage his County after his father's untimely death.
As I was constructing the setting I wanted to create inclusion for my players. Really make a lot of room for them to do their thing. I had months to plan my game while other people were taking turns I knew I could do a lot of detail. One of my goals became a setting where you could walk into the game with any faction in Fading Suns and the game would pick you up and take you along. I knew this would mean that my plots would have to involve Nobles, Church and Guild and they would have to be both alien and human. Going forward inclusion was another benchmark I set so that plot-lines didn't restrict certain character types wherever possible. To this end I designed helpful NPCs from every faction and balanced my antagonists across different groups. I also shaped my plots so that there was no must wide-spread motivation to involve yourself in conflicts but also different avenues to solve them.

Conflict is the fuel of every good story. Not just super heroes brawling on an airport runway (which is awesome) but any opposed aims that leads one party to have to exert their will over another. Part of designing any game for me is defining where the conflicts are and designing them in a way where it's easy for he players to become caught up in them. Some conflicts will be obvious because of your setting but those are rarely the ones that creat the juicy moments of your game. It's important to look for ways to create conflicts that will make the players struggle with their choices, moral quandaries, conflicts of interest, problems that require sacrifice. Without knowing what characters you have in the game it can be difficult to define conflicts that they'll be part of but the greater design of your world requires those conflicts to be mapped out. So I approach conflicts in two stages. In planning the game, I create broad-strokes conflicts that loosely define what the driving forces are in the setting of the game. After the players build characters I write those conflicts into plots that involve assets or people that they players have a stake in so that they become entangled if not motivated.
For Cadiz redemption I decided I needed a big antagonist who's conflict would be destroying the hopes of others, either deliberately as a tool to attain their own hopes, or they would be grinding the hopes of others under their heels in the course of their conflict. I wanted an adversary that wasn't obvious and I thought the best place to hide the big-bad was in priest's robes so I designed a rising Bishop hoping to demonstrate their abilities to the church by seizing control of their diocese with slick subterfuge and devastating moves. I wanted that conflict to feel like a chess game. I wanted our big bad to methodically crushing the hopes of others in order to define herself as the only hope fixing what was wrong in the valley.
However this is not an action antagonist so I built some action antagonists to be manipulated by our Bishop. I made a Muster Roustabout Major who was looking to create a safe conflict to demonstrate his strength against the Decados. While he and his men were warlike and were staging an armed stand-off he would be the political conflict where players would have to navigate a strike that threatened financial interests and embarrassed the local Decados. I created a craven Antimonist that was building a cult that would be too large for the players to attack on their own and too cagey for them to sick some other faction on. They key to defeating them would be stopping their charismatic leader and bringing people together to deal with their numbers. An antimonist seemed like an unlikely tool for a Bishop until I reasoned that the Bishop underestimated our cult leader and an antimonist would draw the attention of church officials and inquisitors away from the moves the Bishop was making. I created a Decados Noble home from the war that was so desperate for a fight and soo antagonistic to the lesser noble house in the game that he was actively looking for an excuse for open warfare. Again he was a foe too big to face alone and defeating him would require the players to bring groups together and do some reconnaissance.
I knew I was going to need stuff to do between the big plot pieces so I created some minor conflicts to resolve. I had made a sort of unscrupulous VanGelder who was going to create trouble for his house despite being very important to it's finances. So I created a blackmail plot against him from the local Muster. I wanted more alien interaction in the story so I built a freedom-fighter faction that believes that the Decados were hiding the mistreatment of Hironem and used terrorist attacks to strike fear into them. I really wanted to create a pair of powerful Decados siblings that would just destroy anyone who got in the way of their fun, basically Uday and Qusay Hussen of the plot, so I ended up making the Count of the valley a bit older and giving him some teenaged nephews that were terrors.

Filling in the blank spaces
Once I have the framework of my game, know the theme I want to portray, have a developed sense of where it will be set, know what the conflicts are, who's driving them and why, I still have some empty space to fill. There are usually loose ends in the plot, motives that have to be defined to explain why people are doing what they do, systems within the plot that either explain why things are being driven or explain why things are limited.
I loved my plot ideas but I knew that my big antagonist had to be subtle because the Decados have soo many spies, but I didn't really have an explanation of why a quite farming County would have any spies at all. So I detailed a pair of conflicts that the Jakovian Agency were keeping an eye on and I included a Charioteer Kilroy that had a plausible cover who was investigating a pattern of unusual commerce that had being going on in the valley. I also invented this Batman-like high tech vigilante called the Sovereign that in the end I made a much less dramatic part of the story. I liked the idea because of how a vigilante interacted with the theme but ultimately I felt like having a super hero in the game would just run roughshot over the players and I couldn't figure out a way to put them into the shoes of the Sovereign.
Leaning back from the drawing board I realized that everything in the game was structured around either a conflict or a deceit. So I started putting in NPCs that were themselves beacons of hope. I made the Tea Shop run by a kindly old Hawkwood Noblewoman who had been released from ransom after the war but didn't go home. I made a plucky honest Scraver cabbie who wants to make her money in a way that makes her parents proud of her. I put in a pair of Decados newlyweds who are just struggling to keep their marriage together with all of the drama going on around them. I had earlier decided on ruthless Decados Baron who would be the scapegoat for bad things happening but now decided to give him a son who had grown up with his father as a role model and was now slipping from his father's grasp as his father fought to protect his son.
We were still lean on Church stuff, so I built some amusing detailed NPCs, a loose canon Avesti and Orthodoxy record keeper who secretly works for the Jacovian Agency. I also created a mild conflict between the local Orthodoxy Cathedral and Mantis League as a visible cue of the Bishop sublimating the Decados rulership. Later I still felt like the setting wanted more priests so I made a recluse monastery of monks who lived on an island on a lake that was actually the dish of a flooded deep space radio.
Taking one last look at the game I realized my players would be shit-starters, and if I didn't give them enemies to chew up they might end up trying to fight to foes that are too much for them to take on. So I built some fodder that they could have a beef with. I made an organized crime family call the Posedjnik who were Megopoli scum that did Decados dirty work and were involved in the drug trade hidden in the valley. I made a volatile VanGelder knightly order that basically was there to find ways to attack the Decados without getting their patron Noble House in trouble. Lastly I built a fish processing plant in the city that was oppressing it's workers and that would eventually result in a violent riot.

Detail brush strokes
At the end of game creation there will still be a lot dead space in the game. Locaitons with nothing hapenning, Game culture that needs filling-in, NPCs that were sketched earlier but left vague because they didn't fit the plot. Once I feel like my game is done I look for the places where it's lacking and fill in those empty spots with fun encounters, or strangeness that turns out to be ordinary or
Before my players came in I decided to sprinkle in some more encounters that were just for fun, humorous beggars, a lost psychic girl, an unhinged Decados noble that will burn down everything when her son is kidnapped by the Antimonist Cult, my tragic noble that lost his daughter became a lot more fun as a charismatic drunk who would stumble around with hookers while his wife fumed. Some earnest Brother Battle who are trying to construct a church who happen to recite a lot of Gospel passages that mention “hope”. I had abandoned a big mystery plot where Engineers had a huge narcotics farm in a rural manor house and decided to just put a bunch of creepy Engineers in the backwoods doing ultra-secret experiments to see how much trouble the characters could get into with them. I made a bully who mostly just liked to throw his weight around because he and his friends were Decados Nobles and what are you going to do about it? I made a description of each fief in the valley and wrote a blurb about the nobles that ruled them because I knew that the end game would involve winning them over, again I gave each of them something they hoped for. When I'm putting in these additional details a lot of times I get ideas that end up cut out of the game because it's important at this stage not to overshadow the bigger plot pieces. Fun ideas can always be used in another game.
I also go back after my players generate characters and do a LOT of brushwork on the game. This is maybe the more serious work of the campaign because it's the plot ties that link the characters to the larger pieces of the game. It is my last and best chance to make strong connections between the players and the plot and the players and the theme.
My players wanted to be brothers, which isn't unusual in our group, those kinds of bonds create really great opportunities to be horrible to each other and come back together. However it created this great dynamic I decided I'd use where the characters would remember the adventures they pretended to have a boys now that they were facing real threats as men.
One player wanted to be a Tourney Knight who missed his chance to fight for the Decados when Alexius claimed the throne. He was going to be a member of the Knights of the Blue Glove, the VanGelder backed order that was keeping the Decados from running rampant over the valley. So right away I knew I had to tweak the setting so that he had these anti-Alexius friends who blamed the New Emperor for everything wrong in the valley. I was in love with casting Alexius as the destroyer of all things good and it created this sense of “hopelessness” in the beginning of the game because people would keep telling the characters that nothing matters as long as the Hawkwood sits on the throne and then slowly they got to see how their own actions changed things for the better. Also since we had a noble I wrote in a side plot that the Tourney Knight's father was covering up the mass grave of an entire village of Hironem that had died of disease. Having someone who was a member of the Knights of the Blue Glove gave me a patron that had the power to push the players towards plots so I did some work fleshing out personalities in the Order, I made an antagonist sergeant who had lost hope of peace with Decados forces, I made an NPC knight who would constantly see the good things in the often mean-spirited or selfish Nobles they served and I wrote the Tournament Knight character deeper into the plot of the Decados newlyweds by involving him in their wedding and a kidnapping attempt on the groom.
The other player wanted to be an Orthodoxy Theurgist who was a bastard and was estranged from the Noble family of the other player. It created this opportunity for a great emotional storyline about the mother of both men slowly dying from a disease that couldn't be stopped. I got to do all of these little vignettes through the early game of how draining that hopeless fight was on their family members. Once I saw how playing through that part of the plot affected both players I knew for sure I had to give the Orthodoxy Theurgist some curse or disease that was going to seem hopeless and have that same parallel with his mother. The Orthodoxy Theurgist was built as a catechist, an educator on religious ritual, which made it super easy to write him into the plotlines with the newlyweds since he'd be the only person in the valley who could counsel them on their wedding vows. But it also meant that he would be working in the Cathedral directly under the Bishop so I had to create a lot of personalities within the Cathedral that would serve to remind the players that the Bishop was a great woman who was working hard to restore “hope” to the valley and restore things to the mythic good times that were lost during the war. I also created a whole plot of the Bishop keeping the Orthodoxy Theurgist busy planning religious events like the 10-year Lux celebration and the Bishop's feast for the County Tournament. I created a bunch of local celebrations for the setting anticipating that there would be these side-lining quests for the Orthodoxy Theurgist who would have to deal with party-planning minutia that would interfere with his ability to deal with the big plot elements.

Game Bible
I start each game with a Game Bible that's GM's eyes only. It's basically just all the notes I've made pasted into one document. I have a list of every important personage in the game. All of the major locations and any behind-the-scenes information I want to keep straight. I detailed the main plotline with information about each step of it's implementation. For this game, since I wanted that open world, timeline-driven structure. I started with the first dozen events in the plots I was opening the game with and I wrote in a dozen events that took place before the start of the game that NPCs would recall to give a sense that things didn't just start the second the players walked onto the scene. As the game progressed and I decided what pace I wanted to introduce plot elements I would continue to build that timeline of plot events further and further out. This way I had not just a plan of what events the players would encounter or hear about but also I had a log that I could use to remind players of exactly how long ago things had started happening, which was useful record keeping when plots stretched across game session.

Player's Bible
I build a Player's bible for character generation for just about each game now. It details the setting with a page or two of background, not just so that players get an information download, but so that all players are on the same page when it comes to the background of their characters. Cadiz Redemption's player bible was 5 pages long, because I worked on this game for a lot time before it started. I gave both players a history brief that gives a general sense of what's different in this game from any other game and a sense of what the problem is. For Cadiz Redemption it was vague descriptions of increasing unrest from Hironem, clashes between the VanGelder and Decados nobles, a Count that people have lost confidence in and the recent arrival of this iconoclast Bishop that is fighting to make things better. I gave the Player-approrpiate versions of the key NPCs, stuff anyone could hear about, along with a few red herrings about them that kept any NPC details from being an obvious plot point. I gave descriptions of the major factions in the setting, what their public goals were and how people felt about them. I created a list of Patrons the players could purchase, one of my players purchased the Knights of the Blue Glove, a list of available allies that nobody bought but later were useful as NPCs, and a list of available enemies that could be taken as disadvantages. One of my players took an enemy and the rest of those characters again became easy NPCs in the game.

Game Opening
Whenever I start a game I design its opening both set the tone of the game and launch players towards the first plot(s) in the story. It's the big chance to make first impressions with NPCs or create the hook of a mystery that will draw the players in. So more than any scene in a game I tend to focus on the opening a lot. I had originally wanted to do a series of these events that change people's lives as a recurring aspect of the game, but that became sort of clunky in the plot, but I still loved some of the ideas I came up with and I needed something to bring characters that had been separated for years together so I wrote one in as the Opening. I started Cadiz redemption with a funeral, it's an event that brings people together obligatorily with forced civility, I had a character who was a specialist in religious rites and another who was an unofficial peace-keeper. I was having trouble figuring out how to engage the Sovereign NPC so the funeral was hers, being captured and executed by Posedjnik thugs. I wrote some exposition about how the alter-ego of The Sovereign was sort of a righteous firebrand of a Decados Maquessa, so it created a lot of opportunity to introduce big players in the setting at her funeral. I made her the fighting instructor of the Tournament Knight to give him a stronger motivation to active in the plots introduced and also to put more punch into the opening. Nicely it became an impetus for his character to talk about what he was doing with his life and how he needed to change.
I was so pleased with the Funeral opening that when I we came back from a hiatus in the game I revisited the concept with a wedding plot event that brought more intrigue and conflicts with NPCs and plot starts. I decided if any PCs were ever killed in the culmination of a chapter the next chapter would start with their funeral to mirror the start of the game.

Running the game
From this beginning the game was largely following the model of letting the PCs pursue the plot events they wanted and follow clues I left for them that lead towards big conflict scenes I had planned or random improvised events that they instigated. As the game went forward I scheduled future plot events and wrote in new sideplots to fill the gaps in the timeline. A big part of the game was about the players changing “hope”s of others so as they created hope in others they would see the NPCs change their behavior and become more positive towards solving issues, and where they dashed their hopes NPCs would become hostile to the players or even become their enemies.

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Re: Designing a Fading Suns Campaign

Postby OccumsRazor » Wed Jan 03, 2018 10:25 pm

First of all, great write-up. I appreciate the time and thought that went into this.

I like your setting discussion in particular. I have moved my train of thought in prepping for campaigns more in the direction of a guided story with extensive prep over the last decade.

Did you create a political map of the County? A list and short description of the Baronies and Baronets located within the borders or with alligiances to the Count? (Love to see these if you did. I created a similar one for Cadavus and north-eastern Malignitius in the past for proposed campaigns that fell thru.

How much detail did you give the PC's in their "Guide" to allow them to choose a character?

Did you give any special bonus points for local skills? Local knowledge in culture, survival, geography knowledge skills? (Bonus's if they wrote WHY into their character write-ups?)

What kind of PC's did your players create and how did you link them to your setting?

Leviathan of Maddoc
Posts: 19
Joined: Fri Nov 18, 2016 1:59 pm

Re: Designing a Fading Suns Campaign

Postby Leviathan of Maddoc » Sat Jan 06, 2018 1:09 am

I drew a map in MS Paint using a rough line of the coastal area and the indication of mountains in the region and I separated the different fiefdoms, named them. It was brutally simple. I just used it to give a sense of scale, when I say that a fief is a three day drive into the valley I need players to know if other things they wanted were on the way. I wanted them to have an understanding that if there was a gun battle in a fief it was over a mountain range from the neighboring fief and they weren't going to be heard. It also helped a bit to understand which nobles were neighbors and where resources came from.

NPCs I detailed a lot more. The major players had more detailed backgrounds than most of the characters. When I could remember everything I had written they were able to tell stories about where they fought in the war or regale the players about when they were on the Tourney circuit. The work paid off for the spy in the game when his stories didn't add up and my players actually noticed.

The Player's bible was very brief, maybe 5 paragraphs about the region and three sentences about each fief and faction. Just enough to give them a sense of what they were about. Some of that was that I was pressed for time but I didn't want to make the handout for the game a reading assignment either.

Local skills really didn't play into the game very heavily at all, but it was probably the most heavy use of the Politics skill I have ever used in a game as the players tried to figure out motives for nobles and guilders and tried to work angles to win them over to their side.

We had a Van Gelder Knight who was third in line to inheirit so he had dedicated himself to becoming a soldier to win renown for his house but the Emperor wars ended and he was fully redundant. He became a tournament knight because it was the only useful thing he could contribute until the Knights of the Blue Glove got their hands on him. He believed his brother had abandoned the family to go join the Orthodoxy.

We had an Orthodox Theurgist who was a bastard Van Gelder. His father was a prominent Decados Troublemaker and his Mother was a soft-hearted Decados that was married off to the Van Gelder in exchange for troops. When his brother left for peerage school the Lord of the House gave him enough money to go to Seminary and kicked him out. He assumed his brother had also turned his back on him. In Seminary exhibited stigma and was drafted to train as a Theurgist, but his passion was always for Catechism.

Later we had a Hironem Alchemist who was just struggling to make his business work and he kept getting caught up in the chaos the brothers were creating so he decided to hire on with them rather than struggle in their wake.

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